AS ALWAYS, the fritillaries halt me in my tracks. Since I search
eagerly for most seasonal treasures, I have never understood why a
small group of them under the walnut tree are not seen until they
wave at me to stop. They are about a foot high,and stand up well in
the not-quite-mature spring grass. Each bloom has six matt,
lustreless petals, and it declines rather than droops, with dark
threadlike stalks. Every April and May, from time immemorial, they
show themselves in my orchard to remind me of what I have cometo
think of as their native land - Framsden, in Suffolk.
It is there, at the long pasture in the dell, which is covered
with these speckled, bell-shaped, vaguely sinister blooms - the
British species of genus Fritillaria liliaceae. It was an
hour's bike-ride from my house, and a proper pilgrimage for a
member of the Wild Flower Society. And Mrs Fox, tall, elderly, and
generous, standing at the gate to welcome us where snake's heads
For 50 weeks her long meadow was no more than two acres of dank
grass, with a lush drainage ditch severing it; but when the
fritillaries came, it turned into the Plains of Enna when
Persephone set foot in them. There they were - hundreds, thousands
of them, some a papery white, but most a muted purple colour with
the reptilian markings that gave them their nickname. Nightingales
sang over them. There was a cold wind blowing, as well as these
mysterious spring flowers.
It would have been a Saturday afternoon when Mrs Fox was at
home. There were so many of them that we never knew where to tread,
and when we left she would give us little fritillary bouquets. This
was the time when country people believed that the more you picked
the more they grew - a policy that rioted when it came to
Fritillaries were so called by the Romans after their dice box,
or shaker, which was one of the few personal belongings that a
soldier carried around. This, and a chequer-board. "And they
crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots, that it might
be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, They parted my
garments among them and upon my vesture did they cast lots."
Matthias succeeded the tragic Judas by the luck of the draw. The
rattling dice-boxes decided great matters. And here is this dicey
flower, with its suggestive markings, among the primroses every
year in my garden - often a meal for blackbirds if I don't protect
I will keep those that Mrs Fox gave me until they shrivel to
nothing on my desk, but I never pick mine. I walk to them, and
watch them. And tread around them. Tidying up a "Rambling Rector"
rose so that it knows its place; hanging up a fallen apple branch;
raking sodden leaves; and hearing the rooks carrying on, thinking
of Framsden and Mrs Fox and her countless snake's heads. -"Put them
in water as soon as you get home, dear. They'll last: you'll see!"
And her joyous dog - "Get you down!"
I must make a proper remembrance of Framsden, and place a single
snake's head on the windowsill, but the March wind, how icy it is,
and the nesting birds, how they sing! And the continuity of all
things. At matins, we sing the Benedicite: "O all ye fritillaries,
bless ye the Lord. Praise him and magnify him for ever."