Spring. No, it’s winter. Defrosted, then re-frozen. Bright, dull, windy and full of sunshine. April frequently plays games, but this year seems worse than usual. No wonder the daffodils look confused.
Wild plants may have less agency over their lives than animals, but they still have to adapt to forces that, while not actively attempting to oppose them, could be said to be playing a maverick game of chess. The weather, for one; flower early and get bitten by frost; leave it late and be smothered by competing species.
And then, there are people. We have worked this island for thousands of years, bumping into nature and accidentally crafting semi-natural habitats of dazzling sights. Most are rare and fragmented now, kicked away by the much harder footsteps of modern agriculture and development. Many hold wonderful things, but few are prettier than this: the chess flower, more often known as snakeshead fritillary.
It grows in floodplain meadows, those riverside biodiversity treasure houses that for centuries provided hay and late summer grazing. Cricklade North Meadow Natural Nature Reserve’s meadow grows where the Thames spills out – although only a little river here, an infant that has not yet met the concrete banks and busy bridges of London.
It is also flanked by the River Churn, and dotted with boundary stones where ancient commoner rights are still upheld. In the summer, it is a sea of flowers, but the purple glow of the snakeshead – this site holds the majority of the UK population – gives the reserve its fame.
Glamorous, even for a member of the lily family; cryptic in markings, overpowering in the sheer enormity of style. It is no surprise that in former times this flower was much desired indoors as well as nodding in the breeze. Middle-aged country-women with tanned cheek and careworn look daily carry through the streets…large flat baskets of this beautiful flower…in short, there is in Oxford a cult of the fritillary says a newspaper article from 1906. Today, they are safe from being picked because their surviving habitats tend to be Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
Every now and again, a white one interrupts the purple.
A few thousand were out, with many more yet to flower. The snakeshead germinates after exposure to frost, but will not flower until the plant is five or six years old. Fertile for just five days, it is pollinated by bumblebees.
And then the board is set for another round of their show.