Lee Valley Tools    Gardening Newsletter
   Vol. 5, Issue 4
   August 2010
   Fritillaries: An Oddball Bulb Family

Fritillaries appeal to those who have a soft spot for odd flowers and colors. The genus is part of the lily family and includes more than 100 species, many of which are hardy only in warmish zones. That said, fritillary hardiness is not an ironclad science. The same species can be listed as quite hardy (e.g., to American zone 3/Canadian zone 4), or mildly hardy (e.g., to American zone 6/Canadian zone 7). Cultural requirements vary, but most prefer well-drained soil in full sun, perhaps with a bit of shade during the hottest part of the day.

The most dramatic fritillary is the crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis). You can almost see it growing, emerging with the daffodils but shooting to about 3' tall, crowned with almost square-shaped reddish-orange (or yellow) bells and a topknot of lily-like foliage. Into the spring garden full of innocent pastels erupts this tall, exotic beauty as though it wandered into the wrong party by mistake.

The magnificent crown imperial fritillary (Fritillaria imperialis) in full bloom.
The magnificent crown imperial fritillary (Fritillaria imperialis) in full bloom.

Because it is part of the lily family, the crown imperial is subject to lily beetles, which could be considered a strike against it. However, on the bright side, you can use it as a trap plant for lily beetles and thereby protect later-emerging lilies. Regular search-and-destroy missions I conducted last year on crown imperials resulted in absolutely no lily beetle damage later that summer.

Despite its size, the crown imperial's foliage dies back very quickly, making it an extremely accommodating bulb for the perennial border. In fact, its only drawback for some, though it doesn't bother me, is the bulb's slightly skunk-like scent. This may be why deer and rodents leave it alone.

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