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A dark maroon and white flower bud on a green stem

One Tough Little Flower

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A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

“What is the name of that flower?“ I asked. 

My wife/photographer answered, “Snake head.”

 “Yipes,” I replied, noting that it did look like a snake’s head, from the its shape to its color pattern resembling scales. 

It also has several other names, only some of which are less threatening. Chess flower, frog cup, guinea hen flower, toad lily, dropping lily and leper lily, because in full bloom resembles the bell once carried by lepers. Unlike some varieties of lilies, and despite its name, it is not poisonous. It is found all over Europe but is becoming endangered in the wild, as the damp meadows where it grows have fallen to cultivation and other developments. 

Do not confuse the snake head flower with the snake plant, a common and rugged indoor plant which resembles not a snake’s head, but its body, being long and tapered. This also has some colorful common names, most prominently mother-in-law-tongue. 

There is some debate as to whether the current wild snake heads are descendents of the original wetlands wild flower or have found their way to freedom after being planted in gardens. Such flowers are said to have “escaped.” They are sold as annuals, but some return and even multiply, especially when planted in the moist, slightly shaded areas where they thrive. 

They are the first delicate flowers to bloom in the spring. Daffodils, primroses and wolf’s bane all look tough enough to survive the last gusts of winter. Their flowers appear relatively thick. Their stems are flexible, prepared to bend without breaking. They grow in clumps, providing shelter to one another. The snake head by comparison is much smaller and appears fragile. They grow mostly as single plants, sprinkled among more hardy neighbors. 

Those other, earlier bloomers only appear hardier. The snake head blooms not long after the others, so must also be resistant to freezing temperatures and the occasional April snowfall. What appears to be more delicate and vulnerable in the forest or garden or elsewhere may in fact be very well prepared not only to survive, but to thrive.

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