Some are expensive, others finicky. Valerie Easton knows because she's killed so many off. And, yet, love persists.
BEWARE OF catching the collectors’ bug. It can infect a gardener at any time, with great risk to your time, energy and wallet.
Fixations and cravings don’t come cheap. I know, because I’m a fritillaria addict. I tell myself that it could be much worse. When you picture a garden planted in “onesies” of every different kind of plant, or a plot grown into a dark bamboo forest, a craving for bulbs isn’t so bad, is it?
Except that some fritillarias are expensive and others finicky. I know because I’ve killed so many off. There’s nothing sadder than watching checkered lilies (Fritillaria meleagris) dwindle away. These sweethearts are spindly and weak-stemmed even at their best. I admit checkered lilies are subtle flowers with their faded, Tiffany-lampshade look, but that’s probably why I love them so.
After more tries than I’d care to admit, I’ve finally found a spot where checkered lilies flourish; in great big pots in a cool, shady courtyard. They share these pots with black bamboo and liriope year-round. The fritillarias pop up in April, and when they fade, it’s time to add begonias for summer.
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But it wasn’t these dainty beauties that launched my fritillaria obsession. It was the bravado-filled flowers of crown imperials (F. imperialis), which cost more than $10 a bulb, that sent me sliding down that slippery slope.
Crown imperials have a strong, architectural profile that dominates the spring garden. They can tower 5 feet tall, although mine haven’t. Yet. Their glossy black stems are topped with a cluster of fat, bell-like flowers. At the top of this floral apparition is a poufy topknot of foliage. And we haven’t even gotten to the colors! ‘Rubra Maxima’ is orange-red with purple veining, ‘Lutea’ is brilliant yellow, and ‘William Rex’ shades toward bronze-red. You can understand how the collector’s gene, no matter how recessive, tends to kick in here, can’t you?
These regal bulbs require lots of sun and excellent drainage. Plant them in rockeries, pots and raised beds. Add sand and gravel to the soil, don’t water or disturb the bulbs in summer. And they’ll grow back even taller next spring, looking like a flock of parrots have landed in your garden just in time for Easter.
Nothing is perfect, not even our favorite flowers. Crown imperials have earned the common name of “Stink Lily” for their whiff of skunk. This odor, which is slight but persistent, may disqualify them for bouquets or pots by the front door, but it also protects them from predation. Insects, moles, rabbits and deer, repelled by the smell, leave crown imperials alone. All fritillarias exude this musky smell to some extent, but none more than the Stink Lily.
Many fritillarias are in between the extremes of the shy little checkered lily and the showboating crown imperial. F. uva vulpus is much prettier than its name, with deep purple bells edged in bright yellow. Then there’s F. persica, with plum-purple bells and gray-green leaves. ‘Adiyaman’ is a persica cultivar that’s won the Royal Horticulture Society’s Award of Garden Merit for its exceptional height and floriferousness.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “petal & twig.” Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.