Fritillarias come in all shapes and sizes because there are over a hundred species found in the northern hemisphere stretching from North America to Eurasia. Many have bell-shaped flowers in subdued greens and browns, designed to attract pollinating flies, but they look good with box or in bulb lawns.
Many fritillarias come from dry, rocky areas and do best in well-drained positions in the garden. Others are bulb frame plants, unable to survive the average British winter because it’s too damp and cold. However others grow at high altitude where there is snow melt in spring, so they like copious amounts of water. So there isn’t one method for all.
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Crown Imperials (Fritillaria imperialis)
These April-flowering beauties are the most colourful, the most impressive and largest fritillarias. A top knot of foliage shoots above a ring of flowers and these come in shades of red, orange and yellow. The stem can reach 1m in some cases and, once the bulb begins to shoot it can grow to full height in two to three weeks, releasing a pungent foxy odour. You almost smell them before you see them. In cold springs they can be late to shoot, so always mark their position, and do give them space to shine.
This native of the Zagros Mountains in West Iran grows on open hillsides in clay soil so if you have heavy soil this is an advantage, especially if it bakes in the summer. In the wild the flowers are almost always orange and cultivated orange forms, often labelled ‘Rubra’, make stronger plants than the yellow ‘Lutea’. It’s been in grown in gardens for hundreds of years and, when happy, it produces offsets and naturalises. It also sets seeds.
Where to plant
Not every gardener succeeds with Crown Imperials in the ground, because they like moisture in spring and heavier soil. Often it’s a case of finding them a spot they like.
The shorter varieties, which reach 24 inches (60cm), make excellent container plants. Use three or five per pot, depending on size, or place one in the middle to rise above shorter bulbs.
How to plant
Plant the bulbs deeply, up to six inches below the soil, in September or October. There is no need to lay them on their sides.
Feed annually with a slow-release potash fertiliser in early spring.
Maintenance and care
Keep them in leaf for as long as possible, to encourage them to perform nest year.
Water them in dry springs.
Some of the named varieties are hybrids so I prefer to deadhead the named ones. However if you have planted ‘Lutea’ or’ Rubra Maxima’, both selections from the species, leave them to self-seed once you’ve established a clump that returns.
Pests and diseases
Watch out for lily beetles: they like most fritillaries.
Lily beetle on Fritillaria
Varieties of Fritillaria imperialis
Golden yellow flowers that look pristine in April. (up to 3ft/ 90cm)
A shorter, erect variety with red-orange flowers, dark stems and green foliage. (24-30in/7 5cm)
A tall crown imperial with striped or flames orange flowers. (42in/ 1m)
A brown-red flower and striated dark stems. (up to 3ft/ 90cm)
Yellow to pale-orange bells heavily veined in carmine-purple. New and beautiful. (24 - 28in / up to 70cm)
Deep-yellow flowers on a tall plant (4ft/ 1.2m)
One of Rascal series, all named after composers, these are smaller so less impressive. However they flower earlier in the year. (30in/ 75cm)
The most vigorous red-orange and easier to keep than most. The true form is tall and can reach 5ft/ 1.5m.
Fritillaria raddeana is a pallid fritillary with greenish white flowers, closely related to the Crown Imperial but emerging earlier and flowering earlier. Also a lover of damp conditions. More difficult. (18in/ 45cm)
Fritillaria varieties, clockwise from top right: Fritillaria pallidiflora, Fritillaria pyrenaica, Fritillaria Imperiallis 'Rubra Maxima', Fritillaria meleagris (Snake's head fritillary)
Fritillaries suitable for naturalising in grassy areas
Fritillaria meleagris (snake’s head fritillary)
This native of Britain, eastern Europe and western Russia normally has chequered purple-pink flowers held on stems that curve downwards. It’s found in damp meadows, especially in the Thames Valley area. There are white-flowered forms within these colonies too. It’s not the easiest to get going and the best way is to purchase some bulbs and plant them in fours and fives in or near grass. They should self-seed in damp niches. These spread by setting seeds so allow them time to drop the seeds. (12in/30cm)
From mountainous areas of southern France and northern Spain, this brownish green-flowered fritillary has two flowers per stem. Although the flowers are sombre, there’s a golden lining that displays itself as the petals curl up so it’s a good garden bulb. It likes some dappled shade and has proved very hardy in my garden, spreading well from seeds. It’s a native of Pyrenean meadows so good in grass. (12in/30cm)
From the Balkans, Greece and North East Turkey, this easily grown fritillary has large brown-flushed green flowers in spring framed by marrow bracts that can look like hare’s ears. Self-seeds readily, but this is a woodland fritillaria that likes dappled shade and soil that doesn’t dry out to much in spring. ( 9in/ 25cm)
This Mediterranean species is easy is a sunny well-drained position. The bell-shaped green flowers are marked in purple-brown and this fritillaria makes offsets very easily, producing many small bulbs shortly after flowering. (12in/30cm)
Fritillaries for a sunny border
Difficult to acquire, but this tall delicate Chinese fritillaria can form large patches in sunny, dry positions. The long stems are topped with greenish-white chequered bells and the narrow leaves curl over the flower rather like tendrils and they do cling on too. Divide only if flowering begins to dwindle. Rarely sets seeds, but produces more bulbs every year. (24in/ 60cm)
One for semi-shade
This Chinese woodlander needs deep, friable soil to do well, because it hates drying out in summer. If you do succeed, divide your clumps every third year when they’re dormant in summer, to prevent them from going out of flower. (12in/30cm)
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