Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
October, 2004
Regional Report

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Planted this fall, fritillaria crown imperial will make a stunning addition to the garden next spring.

Fritillaria Fascination

Sometimes friends leave your life, only to reappear at a later time. Plants are often the same. Case in point, a return of fritillarias (or as the English would say, "fritillaries") to my garden. This summer and fall I prepared a mail-order list of all kinds of bulbs, only to have it be such an exorbitant amount that I set the order aside several times. In my wanderings at discount department stores and garden centers during this time, I've come across a number of different cultivars and species of fritillarias, not something you usually see locally. Since it's much easier to spend money in drips and drabs than in one large check, I now have a nice collection of fritillaria flowers to look forward to next spring.

A Variable Genus
What I like about fritillarias is the range of plant sizes and flower colors, some of which are highly unusual. They are a bulbous genus of around 100 species, found throughout the temperate parts of the northern hemisphere, including some from the West Coast. Their native environments vary greatly, so there is no one-fits-all formula for growing them. Your best bet is moist, well-drained soil enriched with organic matter. Most fritillarias do best in light shade, except the crown imperial, which needs full sun.

In general, fritillarias are rather exotic-looking plants, with nodding bell flowers, often in shades of odd colors, such as greens, purple-black, and maroon, although there are more traditional flower colors of yellow and orange as well. The most distinctive species is Fritillaria meleagris, with petals marked in a checkerboard pattern.

The Easiest Fritillarias to Find and Grow
Fritillaria meleagris. The checkered lily, snake's head fritillaria, or guinea-hen flower, is a graceful species from the southern and western Alps that grows about 10 inches tall with mauve or purple-and-white speckled flowers. 'Alba' is a pure white form. Although they grow quite well in borders, they are most often naturalized in lawns. (I've been fortunate enough to see them blooming in Christopher Lloyds' orchard.)

Fritillaria imperialis. The crown imperial is a spectacular plant from southern Turkey growing 2 to 3 feet tall, with large flowers. 'Aurora' is orange-red, and 'Lutea' is yellow. Other cultivars also are available. Although the flowers are foul-smelling, be sure to get on your hands and knees and look up inside the bell. It is dazzling.

Other Fritilliarias
Fritillaria persica. The Persian fritillaria, native to Iraq, Iran, and Israel, grows 2 to 4 feet tall with several dozen small, plum-colored bells. I've seen it in England planted in large masses in light shade. Alas, the cost keeps me to only a precious few bulbs.

Fritillaria michailowski. No common name for this diminutive charmer from northeastern Turkey. Growing only about 6 inches tall, each stem bears several flowers of deep purple-maroon with golden interiors.

Fritillaria uva-vulpis. Also listed as F. assyriaca, this species grows to 12 inches tall with numerous purple-maroon flowers with golden interiors.

From specialty bulb catalogs, you might also find F. acmopetala, with olive and purple flowers on 2-foot plants; F. pontica, with greenish white and purple flowers on 12-inch plants, and F. pudica, with wonderfully fragrant, bright yellow flowers on 8-inch plants.

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