Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Northwest Living Taste Now & Then

Flourish With Fritillarias
As exotic thrills or simple fills, this attractive family delivers

With its frilly top and vivid flowers, the crown imperial (F. imperialis) is the most distinctive member of the fritillaria clan.
The small, bell-shaped flowers of F. meleagris show off well in pots, where their delicately checkered patterns don't have to compete for attention.
AS IF THE distinctively drooping flower bells weren't sufficiently laden with charm, the name of these bulbs evokes all the heart-lifting buoyancy of springtime. Can you think of a sillier, prettier word than "Fritillaria"?

"It is curious that such an attractive family should have been so neglected," says D. Drysdale Woodcock (speaking of great names) in the foreword to "Fritillaries: A Gardener's Introduction to the Genus Fritillaria," by Christabel Beck (Faber and Faber Ltd., London, 1953).

Fritillarias have fascinated gardeners for centuries. Herbals from the 16th century refer to them as "the checkered Daffodill." The crown imperial (F. imperialis), with its cartoon-like flamboyance and distinctive profile, was the type most often pictured in the old books. Despite an ancestry nearly as grand as that of tulips, fritillarias are less well known, perhaps because they are so various — more than 100 species are known — and a little trickier to grow.

Closely related to lilies, fritillarias grow wild in open meadows, woodlands and high rocky areas across the Northern hemisphere. We even have eight Northwest native fritillarias, the most lovely of which is the yellow-flowered F. pudica, which unfortunately prefers the dry sagebrush country east of the mountains. Because their native environments vary so greatly, there is no one-fits-all-fritillarias formula for growing them.

Now In Bloom
Narcissus 'Jack Snipe' blooms early and naturalizes easily. It is short (topping out at 8 inches) and sturdy, and like many of the shorter bulbs holds up well in nasty late-winter weather. With creamy white reflexed petals and a lemon-yellow trumpet, it is a daffodil that blends beautifully with all the colors of blooming shrubs, brighter bulbs and early perennials.
They are, however, worth going to some trouble over, because fritillarias take up so little space to such fine effect. It is possible to have one or another in bloom from March through May. With their fringes and unusual patterning, fritillarias slip easily into any style of garden, appearing as exotic as a tropical parrot or as homey as a backyard robin. Fritillarias flourish in pots or window boxes, which is a good strategy to ensure adequate drainage, as well as to enjoy the subtle markings of the delicate checkered lily (F. meleagris), which can be easily lost in a busy border.

Look for fritillary bulbs in late summer and early autumn, plant them deeply with a foot of soil over their tops (four times their own depth is a good rule-of-thumb). Make sure the soil drains well; standing water means certain death. Most fritillarias enjoy sunlight and moisture early in the year, a bit of shade and drought in summer, so planting beneath deciduous trees is a good bet. Provide mulch, give a dose of liquid fertilizer in early spring, and try your best not to dig too close to the bulbs and disturb the roots, as they don't re-grow if broken. The hot or dark colors of fritillarias combine dramatically with the pastels of pansies, forget-me-nots, primroses, corydalis and crocus.

These are some of the easiest fritillarias to grow:

F. imperialis is the most distinctive, with a hen-like frilly topknot so frou-frou it would be a star candidate for the plant-world version of "Legally Blonde." It comes in shades of vivid yellow through brightest orange, and grows to a statuesque 3 or 4 feet high. If the weather cooperates, crown imperials will bloom for Easter. The slightly skunky odor of their large bulbs protects them from rodents and deer.

F. meleagris is less than a foot high, with flower bells decorated in faint patterns of white or green checks against a maroon backdrop. Shade and moist soil suit them best. It is said they naturalize easily, but they seem to dwindle away after a year or so in my garden.

F. persica is a hulk of a plant compared to F. meleagris, growing 3 feet tall from an egg-shaped bulb. Dozens of plum-purple bells coat the sturdy gray-green stems. It likes full sun, good drainage and summer drought. The distinctive color is best shown off when planted with pale tulips and daffodils.

Valerie Easton is manager at The Miller Horticultural Library. Her new book, "Plant Life: Growing a Garden in the Pacific Northwest" (Sasquatch Books, 2002) is an updated selection of her magazine columns. Her e-mail address is

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