Photographs by Stephen Orr
Who would think that this little spring flower could gather so many common names? (see title of post) The classic lady garden writers like to wax rhapsodic about it. Vita Sackville-West loved it. William Morris used it in his designs.
I leave a fuller description to a master, Louise Beebe Wilder in her excitingly titled 1936 book, Adventures With Hardy Bulbs:
Among gardeners who are concerned with growing Fritillaries, the Checkered Lily in its various varieties, is the white hope. If any may be said to be amiable, it is this one. Given a damp situation in sandy loam, it nearly always endures and increases, and where it grows in generous colonies, is a most charming thing. The bulb is small, roundish, and composed of several thick scales. The stem arises to a height of about a foot, the leaves which appear along its upper portion might be termed incidental. They are few, narrow, and pointed, grayish in color. The flower is quaint and engaging, not bright, but decidedly attractive.And its development from the bud stage is interesting to watch. Usually there are two flowers to a stem, but at first the two buds appear to be united. Presently they separate, and the large bud develops a faint checkering, garnet upon a pale ground, and this checkering becomes more distinct until, in the fully expanded, square-shouldered flower, it is very marked. The second bud then follows suit. The buds droop, but the open flower raises its head somewhat, while the narrow leaves, as the stem lengthens, change their position from a slanting one to almost vertical. Each of the six petals that make up the bell is rather narrow and bluntly pointed, and about one and one-half inches long.The checkered Lily was called by Dodonaeus—the sixteenth-century botanist of Flanders, whose writings are said to form the basis of Gerard's "Herbal"—Flos Meleagris, meleagris then being the name of the guinea hen, for the reason that the whole flower is checkered over like the wings and breast of that curious fowl. 'Nature, or rather the Creator of all things, hath kept a very wonderful order, surpassing (as in all other things) the curiousest painting that art can set downe. One square is of a greenish yellow color, the other purple, keeping the same order on the backside of the flower as on the inside, although they are blackish on one square, and of a violet colour in another: in so much that every leaf seemeth to be the feather of a Ginnie hen, whereof it took its name.'