Finding Fritillaries

Easter this year felt strange. Normally, we would, in non Covid times be heading to my mother’s house, for a celebration. Each year she takes great pleasure in buying chocolate eggs for her grandchildren, as soon as she sees them in the shops. She squirrels them away in a sack in the spare room and week by week adds to her haul. When the big day comes, she takes great delight in hiding them all over her much loved garden, and watches three excited and sugared-up children bounce around hunting for prizes, then eating them immediately, and offensively refusing the proffered roast dinner that lands on the table immediately afterwards.  This year though, as my mother has been avoiding shops, the gifts, though incredibly generous, by my and anyone’s standards, were for her, lacking, and we missed going to see her. Of course, the children didn’t notice any difference at all in the magnitude of their gifts, but this got me to thinking that whatever gifts the natural world gives me, I am rarely disappointed.

On Good Friday, we set out from home towards the river that punctuates our lives with its wash and flow. We spend a lot of time near it, sometimes on in, and not yet it in it, as none of us are really confident enough about our swimming to take the plunge, though it is something I would love to do. Part of  our  Persian New Year / Now Ruz celebrations always include a trip to the river, as the seeds we have sprouted and grown are cast into running water. If you look up why this happens, you can find lots of different superstitious explanations, from ridding the house of sadness and sickness, to returning the seeds to nature. For us, it makes sense to see this kind of ritual as manifesting, putting hopes and intentions into little sprouts, then sending them out from hearth and home into wider world. What usually happens it that we watch them float for seconds, before the geese and swans who live in this part of the Thames, swoop in for a speedy snack.

This year, it was a bit of a struggle to get out. My husband and I are both key workers, and term had just finished. We and the children were tired. We knew we needed to make this trip, and the sun was high in the deep blue air, but it was bitterly cold, and we were all reluctant to come away from home. Once we were out and going, we were fine, and seeing the glorious froth of blackthorn blossoms, blousy amongst pitchy branches made us all feel happier. As we walked along out usual river path, I realised, it was probably time to look for some other special flowers too, ones that can be very easily missed as they sit like tiny fairy lampshades, low to the ground, and quite subtle. That is until you see one, and suddenly you realise you are surrounded by them.

Coming into their own glory beside Lady’s Smock and Marsh Marigolds, once seen, Snakeshead Fritillaries are never forgotten. With their amazing chequerboard pattern, and apparent inner luminescence, they are very special little flowers. Historically, I have read that they once thrived all along the Thames, and were sold as posies of cut flowers by children, looking to make a pretty penny in Covent Garden Market. Now, sadly they are rare and vulnerable, as meadows and flood plains disappear, and moving and re-seeding practices change over time. We are lucky though. Here, in Oxford, these wonderful little beacons of spring hope and making a bit of a comeback. They are a marker of the year for me, yet somehow they remain shy and sometimes unavailable. I don’t know if it’s because their leaves blend so easily with the grasses, or that because their stems snake over the ground initially, that they can be quite hard to spot. A friend recently remarked that she hadn’t seen any, despite living in Oxford for many years, and making a point of looking for the flowers in watery places. It seems they grow just a few fields away from where she was looking, fickle in their soil and sunlight preferences.

By the time we got to the meadow where we hoped to see these flowers, everyone was cold, and grumpy. Children, who initially were warm and inadequately layered were now freezing, because I am a mid-life woman, I was cold and sweating. Everyone was hungry, and because nobody was at home, no meal was planned or underway for a sensible time. We were trudging into what felt like an arctic blast, which would, in fact, bring flurries of spring snow in the following days. Nobody was wearing gloves, or the right amount of layers. All the snacks had been eaten. At these points in family walks, things get difficult. Tempers become frayed, someone wants to be carried, someone wants to set a different pace to the rest of us, it can be really hard to be good tempered, jolly everyone and keep going.

We were lucky, that on this occasion it was at this exact point in proceedings that we found the fritillaries. Sly and sneaky, ringing their fairy bells in the wind, tolling at pitches beyond the human range.  It was magical, and suddenly, all difficulties forgotten we were edging carefully from flower to flower, over a carpeted meadow, marvelling at these beautiful beings rising from the mud, as Vita Sackville-West remarked “The fritillary looks like something exceedingly choice and delicate and expensive, which ought to spring from a pan in a hothouse, rather than share the fresh grass with buttercups and cowslips”  I agree, they feel like a blessing from another world at a turning point of the year. After we had seen the flowers, we all felt a lot better, and the rest our walk home was much more manageable somehow. Even in a year of restrictions and rules that separate us from the people who make our lives meaningful, the natural world goes on, and helps us as it does.

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