Regal Crown Imperials

11. April 2021 by Isabelle Van Groeningen
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Fritillaria imperialis 'Rubra' © Isabelle Van Groeningen

Flagge Deutschland für deutsche Übersetzung – auf Deutsch lesen – No spring flower is more impressive than the Crown Imperial: Fritillaria imperialis. Long a feature in oriental gardens, they have been a focal point in western European spring gardens since the 16th century when it was first introduced in Vienna from Turkey and rapidly became one of the most popular garden plants across Europe, appearing in about thirty different forms, most of which are now lost to cultivation. Their natural distribution runs from Turkey eastwards through Iran and Irak, Afghanistan and Pakistan into Kashmir. It is perhaps the most showy, but by far not the only garden-worthy member of this genus.

The genus Fritillaria

The Crown Imperials belong to a fascinating genus of about 100 different bulbous plants that have always captivated me, as they are beautiful in their awkwardness. They often have a somewhat angular habit and subdued colours of grey-green, brownish, or dark plum colours. There are short dumpy ones such as F. michailovskyi or tall, slender ones such as F. acmopetala.

Fritillaria meleagris

Probably the best known of all is the snake’s head fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris. It is native to much of northern Europe, from the UK across northern France, southern Belgium, into Germany and further eastwards into eastern Europe. Favouring moist meadows, they thrive in grassland. There is a fritillary meadow in Coleshill, where we used to live in England. Often you would walk across the meadow not seeing a single flower, until suddenly one would catch your eye. Then another, and then suddenly you would notice hundreds. Master at camouflage, their narrow foliage is not much wider than a blade of grass. The angular, maroon or white flowers have a unique chequerboard pattern, that makes them resemble eggs of the northern lapwing. They will also grow in partial shade in a bed or lawn, as long as they are not too dry during summer.

Fritillaria persica

One of the most elegant of all species, producing a stem up to about one meter tall, clothed in glaucous leaves, and carrying numerous elegant bell-shaped flowers of a near-black purple colour, coated in a silvery blue bloom. ‘Ivory Bells’ is a greenish-white variant. Growing wild at higher altitude in fertile soil on rocky slopes in Cyprus, Turkey, Iran and Syria, they are quite hardy, but dislike excessive wet.

Fritillaria imperialis

These arrive in spring with a lot of pump and circumstance. Much taller than all other spring-flowering bulbs, they make sure nobody will overlook their bright colours in yellow, orange or orange-red tones they cannot be missed in any garden. Usually they will reach up to 1 or even 1,2 meters in height, occasionally more. From a large rounded bulb rises one fat stem, clothed with shiny light green leaves up to approximately two thirds of the stem. The upper part remains free of foliage. At the top, up to 6 large bells hang down, above which appears another crown of shiny leaves like a pineapple.

The normal wild form is orange. For more impact, F. imperialis ‘Rubra’ has dark stems and somewhat darker reddish flowers, and reaches 90cm. F. imperialis ‘Rubra Maxima’ is similar, but will reach up to 1,20m.

F. imperialis ‘Lutea’ flowers yellow, 90cm, F. imperialis ‘Lutea Maxima’ yellow, reaching 1,20m.

There is an orange type where a second set of flowers appear on top of the lower ones known as ‘Prolifera’ or ‘Kroon op Kroon’ (crown on crown). There are variegated varieties, with yellow edging to the foliage, though these are rarely offered for sale and more difficult to grow.

Fritillaria raddeana

Fritillaria raddeana © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Fritillaria raddeana

They are not the only ones to steal the show at this time of year: Fritillaria raddeana has charmed its way into my life. For those who are shy of bright colours, this is a very striking alternative, that lacks the strong foxy smell the Crown imperials have. Somewhat smaller and compact, this plant flowers earlier with pale yellowish green bell-shaped flowers, with dark bronze stem and foliage. It can be found growing wild in Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan and Kashmir. This is an undemanding garden plant, well deserving a place in a border in among other spring bulbs such as tulips.

New hybrids of the Crown Imperials

A number of interesting hybrids have appeared on the market in recent years, that seem to have characteristics of the impressive crown imperials, combined with the earlier flowering or F. raddeana and its attractive details such as dark stems and bronze foliage. Fritillaria ‘Early Sensation’ is a new hybrid that combines the best of both worlds: somewhat stronger growing than F. raddeana, but brings the greenish colour spectrum into the flower. It is a warm coppery green, with very attractive dark foliage that is a real show-stopper in the border right now. A close relative which I first discovered as a cut-flower a few years ago is F. ‘Early Fantasy’ has a soft orange flower and dark stem, like ‘Early Sensation’ it flowers earlier and more compact than the old F. imperialis cultivars.

Cultivation of the Crown Imperials

These large bulbs are best planted on their side in autumn: The flowering stem emerges from the middle of the big, fat bulb, and leaves a hollow tube when it dies back. Planting it on its side will prevent water from collecting in the space which could cause the bulb to rot. They need to be planted at least 20cm deep, in a well-drained soil. Fritillaries have few enemies.  Being part of the lily family, they are also susceptible to the bright red lily beetle that can strip the leaves of if just a few days. Do keep an eye out and remove them as soon as you spot them. Their pungent fox-like smell, disliked by some, liked by others, is said to keep voles and moles at bay. I can’t say I have noticed them having a beneficial effect.

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I enjoy the start of the fritillary season and their great diversity. Over the years I have learnt that it is well wort investing a little more and buying more than just one bulb, as a group of them, or a scattering of them in amongst tulips, will create a memorable, impressive effect.

Look out for them!

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