Gardening: ‘Nothing slippy about these snake heads’

Phyl Boyce


Phyl Boyce

Native to the British Isles, fitillaries (commonly called snakes heads) do well in our cool wet climate. Here is a picture of them growing naturally in a field in Oxfordshire, England
There are fritillaries (snakes’ head) for almost every garden situation.

There are fritillaries (snakes’ head) for almost every garden situation.

The combination of delicate flower structure, rich colouring and a nodding head makes each stem a thing of beauty. There are about 100 species and they share their botanical name, fritillus, with a butterfly. They are found throughout the temperate parts of the Northern Hemisphere, with just one species, the beautiful Snakehead Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) native to the British Isles. The fritillaries are very diverse in form, colour and growth habit. The leaves are lance shaped or linear with bell shaped flowers that are usually pendulous. The flowers come in a range of colours like white, yellow and different shades of purple, some flower stems producing a number of flower heads. Some fritillaries have checkerboard markings which act like the landing lights for aircraft so they help the pollinating bees into the flower bell. The flowers are produced in spring on stems up to 12 inches tall.

Fritillaria meleagris produces a purple or white flower. It grows best in areas with cool damp summers and soil with lots of humus added to the soil. Fritillaria pallidiflora produces pale creamy yellow flowers in late spring and early summer. Fritillaria michailovskyi has deep brown-purple flowers with a yellow edge. Fritillaria imperialis (Crown Imperial) makes a colourful splash, with its large yellow, red or orange flowers on stems 2 to 3 feet tall. This plant comes from Turkey and likes a well drained soil in full sun. The problem with this bulb is that it has a hollow centre which holds water and in cold wet soils will rot. The bulbs should be planted on their sides with plenty of sharp sand worked into the surrounding soil. The bulbs should be bought towards the end of summer, avoid any damaged or mouldy specimens, and plant them into the ground as soon as possible. The crown imperial needs to be planted deeply while the rest of the fritillaries can be planted at a depth at least twice that of the bulb.

Most fritillaries like a well drained neutral soil. They grow well in a rock garden or raised alpine bed. They also look well at the front of a herbaceous border providing early spring colour.

Sambucus aurea

Now is the time to prune sambucus aurea (golden elder) back hard, it can be cut back to a few feet above the ground. The plant will develop new stems up to 8 feet tall with large yellow leaves, like all elders the more you cut them the more they grow.

The plant produces white flowers followed by red berries in the autumn. Sambucus nigra has red dark purple leaves and produces black berries similar to the wild elders that grow in hedgerows around the country. Plant sambucus between autumn and spring in moisture retentive soil, enriched with compost, in sun or light shade. Sambucus is a grub that grows better in colder regions and will withstand all conditions except drought.

Garden pools

Garden pools have become very popular in recent years. The addition of water brings an ever-changing pattern of sound, movement and reflections. A water feature, however big or small, is ideal for creating a cool, relaxing atmosphere in the garden on a warm day. It allows you to grow plants that will not thrive in any other part of the garden. Algae can be a problem in garden pools at this time of the year, turning the water into a pea-soup colour with scum floating on top. The increase sunshine increases the growth of algae. The problem can be reduced by adding a few gallons of water from a clean pond, this water contains a balance of aquatic micro-organisms that reduce the algae. Once you get the balance right do not change the water in the pond. Algae can also be reduced by growing some oxygenating plants in the pond or putting in a fountain to increase the oxygen content of the water so that micro-organism can survive. Water lilies also reduce algae, the large leaves shade the surface of the water and exclude water. The water lilies also produce beautiful flowers. The best time to plant water lilies is between April and September. Algae can be removed with a sweeping brush.