The crown imperials, Fritillaria imperialis, are the largest of the species. In shades of yellow and terracotta orange, they sometimes appear at the back of Dutch flower paintings. Their thick four-foot stems are topped with a tuft of leaves, below which hang a circle of bells. Within the petals, drops of water collect which Gerard, the early botanist, claimed, "will never fall away, no not if you strike the plant until it be broken''. I haven't tried this rough experiment, but the dewy tears at the heart of the crown imperial are the stuff of legends. The most commonly told is that it was the only flower that didn't bow its head at the passing of Christ on the way to his crucifixion, but now it bows for ever and weeps eternal tears.
The bulbs of crown imperials are large and smell of foxes, and for this reason one of its common names is "stink lily". When planting the bulbs it is better to lay them on their side if the soil drains badly, so that the crown of the bulb does not rot. They prefer good drainage, a rich diet and sun. They will perform in shade, however, as long as they can dry out completely in summer. If you can manage to keep tulips from year to year you will probably be able to satisfy crown imperials.
The snake's head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) was called the ginny- hen flower by Gerard, because its flowers look like a speckled guinea hen. Others have given it less attractive names - death bell, sullen lady, madam ugly or turkey eggs - but its dark chequered petals (fritillaria means dice box) are more fascinating than sinister. It is a British native wildflower, still found in damp water meadows, but it seems to grow perfectly happily in grassy places that are not particularly moist. Pheasants love the bulb, but deep planting, which is what the snake's head likes, will deter them. There is a white form for those who find the dark one too funereal.
Fritillaria pallidiflora is more cheerful than most of its kindred. It has pale sulphur-yellow bells and greeny-grey leaves. In a sunny place it will seed and I have not found it at all difficult to grow. Fritillaria persica likes sun too and the same sort of conditions as imperialis, but its tiny black flowers on very tall stems are more curious than attractive ("Adiyaman" is the best form). For those who can offer cool rich soil, Fritillaria camschatcensis is another dusky curiousity.
All of the smaller fritillaries are plants which need to be closely looked at to be fully appreciated. If you grew a snake's heads in a pot this winter, to flower next spring, you might acquire a taste for their offbeat attractions. They are the sort of flowers that do not usually appeal to everyone at first, perhaps because they lack the cheerfulness of other spring flowering bulbs. But fritillaries do have a fascination for collectors, and given time and study they reveal themselves as strangely distinguished plants.
A new nursery, Botanicus, which specialises in historic bulbs lists some fritillaries among other bulbs that were all introduced to Britain before 1850. Scholarly notes accompany each entry and they offer the double form of crown imperial, "Crown on Crown". This cultivar was first recorded in 1629 by King James I's apothecary, John Parkinson.
SUPPLIERS: Botanicus, The Old Barn, The Street, Weybread, Diss, Norfolk IP21 5TL (01379 588183). Send pounds 1.20 for catalogue, which includes postage. Jacques Amand, The Nurseries, Clamp Hill, Stanmore, Middlesex HA7 3JS (0108-954 8138); Avon Bulbs, Burnt House Farm, Mid Lambrook, South Petherton, Somerset TA13 5HE (01460 42177); Peter Nyssen, Railway Road, Urmston, Manchester M41 0WX (0161 7486666).
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