These true bulbs can lend height to a border and bring drama to a spring garden, Miranda Kimberley finds.

F. michailovskyi - image: Floramedia
F. michailovskyi - image: Floramedia

Fritillaria are a real star of the spring display, if you can get them to grow happily for you. They grow to a variety of different heights — from the imposing crown imperials, which can provide a bright impact in a border, right down to the more diminutive rockery species.

There are up to 130 species of Fritillaria in the lily family and they originate across several temperate regions — the Mediterranean, south-west Asia and western North America. They are true bulbs, flowering between April and May, with some in June. The plants produce stems, some thick, some delicate, topped with bell-shaped, generally nodding flowers.

The name Fritillaria apparently comes from the Latin term "fritillus", which means dice box, referring to the chequerboard pattern some species display. This is the pattern on F. meleagris Award of Garden Merit (AGM), or the snake’s head fritillary, which is found growing wild across Eurasia, including Britain. It is a lovely woodland plant, with its quite exotic purple-brown or white tessellated flower heads.

Very popular is the stout species F. imperialis AGM, which bears a whorl of large bell-shaped flowers
in bright shades of red, orange or yellow and is topped with a crown of fresh green leaves. It is an incredible statement bulb in a garden but looks perhaps even more striking when seen emerging from the ground of the plains in countries where it grows wild, such as Iran.

Other striking species include F. persica, one of my personal favourites for its strong glaucous stem and leaves, against which the small, velvety dark-purple bells stand out magnificently. There are also several more delicate species that suit similar woodland conditions to F. meleagris AGM. These include F. acmopetala AGM, with thin bells that are coloured a subtle purply-brown and green; and F. michailovskyi, which has short stems with stouter purple bells, edged with yellow.

There is some debate over how tricky they are to grow — some say difficult, some say not so difficult,
as long as you get the soil and aspect right. Certainly, when it comes to planting, a little care needs to be taken. The bulbs have fleshy scales that dry out quickly so they should be planted as soon as possible after being purchased.

F. imperialis AGM and F. persica like full sun in well-drained, fertile soil. F. elwesii and F. pontica AGM like similar soil but cope with dappled shade as well as sun. They do not tolerate wet conditions. Woodlanders such as F. meleagris AGM need moist, humus-rich soil in sun or partial shade.

A growing tip is to place the bulbs sideways on planting. This may not be as important for the smaller ones but for the larger fleshy ones such as F. imperialis AGM it stops water rotting them off before they have a chance to shoot and establish. The crown imperials are also best planted deeply.

Being part of the lily family, they are susceptible to the distinctive red lily beetle, which starts to lay its greedy grubs in spring. Both adult beetles and their larvae feed on the leaves. If inspected early enough (late March), beetles, eggs and larvae can be picked off by hand. Heavy infestations can be treated with pesticides, but avoid applications once the flowers have opened because this will damage beneficial insects.

What the specialists say

Karen Lynes, manager, Peter Nyssen, Manchester

"Fritillaria are fabulous for bringing drama to the spring garden. As stand-alone plants they have a mystical magic of their own — from the small but perfectly formed F. elwesii to the tall, loud and proud crown imperials. They all have a place in the garden. They are easy to grow but occasionally can be stubborn and refuse to flower, but with perseverance you can coax them out of their tantrum.

"Crown imperials are excellent planted on their own, elegant yet dramatic with an architectural elegance. They lend height to the border and mix well with other bulbs. The bell-shaped flowers are well proportioned to the size of the leaves, which form a crown above the flower head, giving added interest. F. persica is dark and imposing, planted among tulips or alongside greenish-white F. persica ‘Ivory Bells’ for great contrast.

"F. meleagris are perfect for meadow planting but must be in soil that is damp all year. They do not tolerate the dry. The reward in spring is a dazzling display of bell-shaped flowers with a chequerboard appearance. Smaller varieties are excellent for containers or a rockery, where their flowers are best seen."

John Amand, managing director, Jacques Amand, Middlesex

"The genus is very varied, containing plants from a couple of inches up to 3ft high. The tallest are the crown imperials, of which many excellent new varieties have come on the market in the last year.

"These include the Fantasy Series, including Early Dream and Early Passion, and the Rascal Series, with composer names such as Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi and Mahler. We started supplying them for the first time last autumn. They have even more vibrant colours than the crown imperials, which came before.

"There are a few less well-known species I favour. F. camschatcensis has a specific distribution, hailing from Japan, parts of Russia and the US, including Alaska. Also the more showy American species F. recurva, which can be expensive and tricky to grow so suits pot treatment over being grown in the garden, and F. pudica. But I still value our British native F. meleagris above all else for its pretty flower.

"In terms of cultivation their needs vary depending on the habitat they come from. Crown imperials need a well-drained soil — if this is present putting them on a bed of sand is not necessary but plant them deep and feed them. If you don’t, you may get flower in the first year but never again. Placing the bulb
on its side when planting is a good tip, to prevent rotting. The woodlanders like F. meleagris and
F. camschatcensis need light shade to thrive."

In practice

John Winterson, deputy plant buyer, RHS Plant Centres

"Fritillaria is a popular genera for us, with a mixture of sales of dry bulbs in the autumn and pots of growing plants in the spring. The biggest seller by a mile is F. meleagris, the beautiful snake’s head fritillary.

"The cheapest way to buy them is in the autumn in packs of 50, but if you miss that time of year then we have plenty of pots in March and April. They are very reasonable and make a great display when the flowers are popping open. They are easy to care for and just need a little moisture.

"Our next best seller is the stunning F. michailovskyi, short in height but with large two-tone flowers. A little more fragile than F. meleagris but as long as you have good drainage you should be OK. These sell well from both the alpines and herbaceous sections and from tables as impulse lines.

"Other popular ones include F. persica and the unusual-smelling F. imperialis types such as ‘William Rex’, ‘Lutea’, and ‘Rubra Maxima’. The imperialis are hard to display in the plant centre because they have a tendency to not grow up straight, especially if they fall over for a short spell. But once planted out in the garden they are fine.

"They are best suited to the A-Z beds for us. Their bright coloured large flowers are good for attracting attention and, well, there’s always the smell."

Species and varieties

F. acmopetala AGM (H4), the pointed-petal fritillary, has erect stems with sparsely spaced, narrow, lanceolate leaves and nodding, bell-shaped flowers that are pale-green but tinged purple on the inner tepals. Height: 30cm.

F. camschatcensis is a nice woodland species that likes moist, peaty soil in the shade. It bears a terminal whorl of dark-purple, almost black, flowers in June. Height: 30cm.

F. elwesii is a delicate-looking species that grows well in a garden situation. Has nodding flowers that are narrow and held more closed than others, showing off their green and purple striped colouring. Height: 45cm.

F. meleagris AGM (H5), the snake’s head fritillary, has lance-shaped, greyish-green leaves and nodding bell-shaped purple flowers covered in a tessellated pattern like a chessboard or snakeskin. A lovely woodland bulb. Height: 30cm.

F. imperialis AGM (H7) is known as the crown imperial for its umbel of bell-shaped orange or yellow flowers beneath a crown of bracts. They are held on stout erect stems in early summer.
F. imperialis ‘Maxima Lutea’ AGM (H7) is a strong variety with bright-yellow flowers in early summer and whorls of narrow pale-green leaves. Height: 1.5m.

F. michailovskyi is a delicate species with lance-shaped, grey-green leaves and nodding, broadly bell-shaped flowers with subtle colouring of deep purplish-brown and yellow-tipped tepals, produced in early summer. Height: 20cm.

F. pallidiflora AGM (H5), the Siberian fritillary, has glaucous lance-shaped leaves and nodding greenish-yellow flowers that are slightly brown within, produced in early summer. Height: 30-35cm.

F. persica is a very striking species with glaucous stems and foliage, bearing a conical formation of dark-purple flowers. They need soil with excellent drainage.
Height: 60-90cm.

F. uva-vulpis has lance-shaped leaves and nodding bell-shaped maroon flowers that are lined internally with a mustardy yellow colour. Likes full sun or partial shade. Height: 25-35cm.

Thank you to Floramedia, which supplied the images for this article from its photo library

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