'Snakeshead Fritillaries'. These are waterside plants that grow beside the Thames in Oxford, and very famously in the gardens of Magdalen College, and Geoffrey Grigson - I remember reading about them before I was aware of the flowers - saying that everyone should walk once in a fritillary field before he died, and that the best position to look at fritillaries was when the sun was low in the sky and you kneel down and get the light of the sun through their petals, which is quite true. They're called Snakeshead Fritillaries because with the dapple they are supposed to resemble the head of a snake. The fritillary has this, as I've remarked, this ...

'Snakeshead Fritillaries'. These are waterside plants that grow beside the Thames in Oxford, and very famously in the gardens of Magdalen College, and Geoffrey Grigson - I remember reading about them before I was aware of the flowers - saying that everyone should walk once in a fritillary field before he died, and that the best position to look at fritillaries was when the sun was low in the sky and you kneel down and get the light of the sun through their petals, which is quite true. They're called Snakeshead Fritillaries because with the dapple they are supposed to resemble the head of a snake. The fritillary has this, as I've remarked, this curious habit of coming out first with its head laying close to the ground before it begins to raise it on the stem, and when I first grew them in our garden, I didn't know this habit of theirs, and I thought "Oh damn, the children have trodden on them, and there I've lost another precious thing."

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Snakeshead Fritillaries

Some seedlings shoulder the earth away
Like Milton’s lion plunging to get free,
Demanding notice. Delicate rare fritillary,
You enter creeping, like the snake
You’re named for, and lay your ear to the ground.
The soundless signal comes, to arch the neck –
Losing the trampled look –
Follow the code for colour, whether
White or freckled with purple and pale,
A chequered dice-box tilted over the soil,
The yellow dice held at the base.

When light slants before the sunset, this is
The proper time to watch fritillaries.
They entered creeping; you go on your knees,
The flowers level with your eyes,
And catch the dapple of sunlight through the petals.

from Collected Poems (Carcanet, 1997), copyright Anne Ridler 1997

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