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Fritillaria spp., fritillary

Summary

As a member of the lily family, plants in the genus Fritillaria must be expected to be poisonous but little detail is known about them.

Blog Entries

Read more about fritillaries in these blog entries;
Why did my crown imperials die?

Family

Liliaceae

Fritillaria spp., fritillary

Looking into the flower of Fritillaria imperialis,
crown imperial

Meaning of the Name

Fritillaria
From the Latin, ‘fritillus’, ‘dice-box’ as the flowers of a number of species have markings reminiscent of dice. Gerard, however, disputes this saying it comes from the chess board based on a translation of ‘frittillo’ as ‘tables’, i.e. the tables at which men sat to play dice and chess.
 
imperialis
Imperial and, hence, splendid and showy.
 
meleagris
Said to be based on the guinea fowl because of the patterning of the flowers. Meleagris is the genus of both wild and domestic turkeys but the guinea fowl is classified as Numida meleagris. Gerard calls the plant ‘Turkie or Ginny-hen flour’.

Common Names and Synonyms

The two best known species of the Fritillaria genus are Fritillaria imperialis, called crown imperial, and Fritillaria meleagris which has a number of common names including snake’s head, fritillary, bloody warrior, leper lily, drooping bell of Sodom

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

Though not fully investigated, it is believed the plants have effects similar to the genus Veratrum.

Grigson, in his ‘Englishman’s Flora’, calls the F. meleagris ‘snaky, deadly beauties’ but there is little evidence of harm.

Some sources suggest it is a cardiac poison but it does not appear on the HTA list of potentially harmful plants.

Fritillaria spp., fritillary

F. meleagris, snake's head fritillary

Incidents

There are no reported incidents.

Folklore and Facts

The Fritillaria are yet more plants which were growing near Christ's crucifixion leading them to hang their heads in sorrow which they still do today.

F. meleagris is associated with deceit and Vita Sackville-West declared it to be "a sinister little flower, in the mournful colour of decay." Leper lily refers to the similarity between the shape of the flower and the bells carried by lepers. This may explain its sinister reputation.

F. imperialis is thought to originate from the Himalayas and, if found in the wild, there are usually traces of a demolished property meaning it was being grown in a garden.