Autumn Squill

As the swallows prepare to leave in the early autumn, delicate blooms of Autumn Squill appear on The Lizard.
Photo: Amanda Scott

Scientific name: Scilla autumnalis

Conservation status: Nationally scarce.

Autumn Squill is a member of the Lily family (Liliaceae) of flowering plants, which also includes well-known species such as Bluebells and Snake’s-head Fritillaries. It is closely related to Spring Squill but, as its name suggests, flowers later in the year, with its delicate blue-violet flowers (several per stem) and long linear leaves appearing from July into the early autumn, reaching heights of between 5 and 20 cm. There are other differences between the two species: Autumn Squill flowers have no bracts, unlike those of its spring-flowering relative, and have purple anthers, compared to the paler violet anthers of Spring Squill. However, there is little risk of confusing the two given the different flowering periods.

You can find Autumn Squill on rocky heaths, grassland and cliffs close to the coast, especially those prone to drought. It is also found inland on the dry gravel terraces of the Thames valley. Generally, however, the distribution of this nationally scarce species is fairly limited in the UK, mainly focussed on the south-west, Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly in particular, though it is also found on the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands. Outside of the UK, its distribution is mainly the south and west of Europe, north-west Africa and western areas of Asia.

A locally abundant perennial plant on The Lizard, where it has a preference for serpentine soils, its bulbs can survive periods of drought for some time and it is able to grow in the thin soils of rocky coastlines, where more vigorous, competitive plants are unable to take hold.

Did you know…?

…Autumn Squill is divided into two races at the chromosome level in the UK. In the south of Cornwall, including The Lizard, and in Guernsey it is hexaploid (=six sets of chromosomes), but further east and in Jersey it is tetraploid (= four sets of chromosomes)

…Don’t wait until autumn is set in before looking for Autumn Squill: by October it will generally have finished flowering. August into September is the best time.

More information and references:

Bates, R. and Scolding, B., 2002. Wild Flowers of The Lizard. Cornwall County Council, Cornwall.

Mabey, R., 1997. Flora Britannica. Chatto & Windus, London.

Rose, F. and O’Reilly, C., 2006. The Wild Flower Key, 2nd edition. Frederick Warne, London.

Stace, C., 2010. New Flora of the British Isles, 3rd edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Published: August 2013
Author: Amanda Scott
Photos: Amanda Scott