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Gardening 101: Fritillaria

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Gardening 101: Fritillaria

April 13, 2017

The Crown imperial, Fritillaria imperialis, is undoubtedly the diva of the April garden—a spring bulb that’s topped with a dramatic cluster of vivid nodding flowers and a crown of spiky leaves that looks like a tribal headdress. It’s an extraordinary looking plant. But it’s also just one fritillaria, a group that’s part of the Lily family.

Read on to see some of our favorites:

Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer for Gardenista.

 The most diminutive of these autumn-planted bulbs is the delicate snakes head fritillary (F. meleagris). Its name, derived from the Latin for a dice-box (fritillus), refers to its distinctive checks.
Above: The most diminutive of these autumn-planted bulbs is the delicate snakes head fritillary (F. meleagris). Its name, derived from the Latin for a dice-box (fritillus), refers to its distinctive checks.
 F. meleagris comes in plums and purples through to white and in the right conditions—preferably damp meadowland—it will multiply prolifically. In early winter it will send up shoots to just below the surface of the soil and will then emerge in spring.
Above: F. meleagris comes in plums and purples through to white and in the right conditions—preferably damp meadowland—it will multiply prolifically. In early winter it will send up shoots to just below the surface of the soil and will then emerge in spring.
 The crown imperial is the most-statement making fritillaria to plant. The exotic-looking blooms sit on chunky stems up to 3 feet tall and come in rich jewel colors; the common variety is a rusty brown. ‘Lutea’ or ‘Aurora’ are strong yellow, while ‘Rubra’ or ‘William Rex’ are both a rich orange.
Above: The crown imperial is the most-statement making fritillaria to plant. The exotic-looking blooms sit on chunky stems up to 3 feet tall and come in rich jewel colors; the common variety is a rusty brown. ‘Lutea’ or ‘Aurora’ are strong yellow, while ‘Rubra’ or ‘William Rex’ are both a rich orange.
 Crown imperials can be planted in sun or partial shade. F. raddeana is a similar shape but shorter, with stunning lime green flowers.
Above: Crown imperials can be planted in sun or partial shade. F. raddeana is a similar shape but shorter, with stunning lime green flowers.

For shade gardens, there’s F. camschatcensis, which is native to north east Asia and north America, and has stunning deep purple, almost black nodding flowers appearing in late May. It’s an elegant plant that prefers woodland conditions and a layer of leaf mould.

Cheat Sheet

  • You can plant snakes head fritillaries in borders amongst other spring flowers such as hellebores or narcissus, but it will be happiest in damp grass or meadows.
  • It prefers a heavier damp soil to lighter, free draining soils. If you want a natural effect then scatter bulbs over grass by hand and then plant them where they fall.
  • For F. imperialis, plant the enormous bulbs deep (around 8 inches) and 8 inches apart and on their side. As with other spring bulbs, if you cut the flowers or deadhead them leave as many leaves as possible and only remove the leaves once they have died back. Although with a heavy foxy aroma these aren’t the best flowers to bring into the house.

Keep It Alive

Crown imperials will need dividing every few years to maintain their vigour – dig up bulbs in late summer and separate bulbs before replanting. To prevent rot add some horticultural grit to the bottom of the planting hole. It can take a while for these plants to flower – sometimes

Moisture loving snakes head fritillaries won’t thrive in a pot, but Imperialis will cope better with more free-draining conditions.

 If you plan to grow them in grass, choose an area that is un-mown until later in the summer.
Above: If you plan to grow them in grass, choose an area that is un-mown until later in the summer.

See more of our springtime favorites:

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