This April I was planning to visit the meadows at Cricklade to see the snake’s head fritillary in flower but as this is not possible, I have been exploring early herbals to find out more about their history.

One of the earliest herbals printed in London which mentions the fritillary is John Gerard’s the herball, or Generall histories of plantes, 1597. Although it is generally acknowledged that this work was partly a translation of an earlier Flemish herbal, we know that the fritillary was known in Britain at the end of the sixteenth century as Gerard comments on its other English names, ‘the Turky-hen or Ginny-hen floure’. I will leave it to botanists to tell me whether a flower that has grown in England for over four hundred years makes it a native species or not. [At the end of this article I will include Gerard’s entry for the fritillary as I love the way the Herbal is written. And it also illustrates why Linnaeus’s binomial nomenclature of plants was so important as before then, a flower was called by so many different names it makes it very difficult to trace its history.]

William Hudson in his Flora Anglica of 1762 believed that the fritillary was a native species referring to its origin as ‘Anglis’. The ‘common chequered daffodil or Fritillary’ could be found growing ‘plentifully…in pratis et pascuis [meadows and pastures]. In Mawde Fields near Rislip common, Middlesex’ and ‘in pratis inter Mortlake & Kew’.

And next April, I will photograph the Ginny-hen flowering in the meadows of north Wiltshire. I cannot wait.

John Gerard, The herball, or Generall histories of plantes. London, 3rd Series 1633 [1st printed 1597]

Chap. 89. Of Turkie or Ginny-hen Floure

The Description

…One square is of a greenish yellow colour, the other purple, keeping the same order as well on the backside of the floure, as on the inside, although they are blackish in one square and of a Violet colour in an other; insomuch that every leafe seemeth to be the feather of a Ginny hen, whereof it tooke his name. The root is small, white, and of the bignesse of halfe a garden beane.

The Names

The Ginny hen floure is called of Dodonum…Lilio-narcissus variegata, for that it hath the floure of a Lilly, and the root of Narcissus: it hath been called Fritillaria, of the table or boord upon which men play at Chesse, which square checkers the floure doth very much resemble; some thinking that it was named Fritillus: wherof there is no certaintie…

In English we may call it Turky-hen or Ginny-hen floure, and also Chequered Daffodill, and Fritillarie, according to the Latine.

The Temperature and Vertues

Of the facultie of these pleasant floures there is nothing set downe in the ancient or later Writer, but are greatly esteemed for the beautifying of our gardens, and the bosoms of the beautifull.

 

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