University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Fall News Article


Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

These are less common spring-flowering bulbs that you plant in the fall as you would the more common daffodils and tulips.  Their flowers come in a range of colors, and are generally bell-shaped, either in clusters or single.  Plants range from six inches to three feet or more.  Being less common, you may need to order many selections in late summer, either online or from mail-order bulb catalogs.

The most common fritillary is the Crown Imperial (Fritillaria imperialis).  You may have seen its basal rosettes of narrow, long leaves, from which the tall stems emerge in late spring.  Atop these three-foot stems are clusters of up to ten flowers.  Generally bright red-orange, you can also find less common selections with yellow or light orange flowers.  The huge bulbs (often four inches wide) are strongly scented, similar to fox or skunk, and so are used to repel rodents from the garden where they are planted.

As with many fritillaries, these are originally native to the eastern Mediterranean and central Asia.  This is also one of the oldest in cultivation, dating back to 1590.  It was then that a man named Clusius brought some with him (along with some of the original tulips) to the botanic garden in Leiden, Holland, from which they were introduced. Since he had been the head gardener at the imperial gardens in Vienna, these bulbs got the name Crown Imperial.

Perhaps the next most common fritillary, one you can often find at local garden stores along with the crown imperial, is the guinea hen flower (Fritillaria meleagris).  It is also known as the snake's head fritillary, or checkered lily, due to the purple and white checkered pattern of the flowers. In fact the name of this genus (Fritillaria) comes from the latin word for dice-box, referring to the checkered pattern often found on these. Another common name is leper lily, referring to the bell shape of the flowers, similar to the bells lepers carried in medieval times. A mix of these bulbs is often found with white flowers as well.

Unlike most fritillaries that need well-drained soil, the checkered lily prefers cool, moist soil and can tolerate some wet soils.  It is often found naturalized, growing in huge masses, in moist meadows of northern Europe and Scandinavia.  Above the very thin leaves, the flowers are single on stalks only about one foot high.  Although in general the fritillaries are listed as deer and rodent resistant, I have found this species eaten to the ground by such creatures!

The Persian fritillary (Fritillaria persica) is probably the third most common, and is rather unique and attractive.  It has strong, upright stems to over two feet high.  Up the stems are wavy, bluish leaves.  Near the top are many small, hanging bell-shaped flowers.  Generally plum colored, a less common selection has white flowers.  As with most fritillaries, this one prefers full sun.  Similar to the crown imperial, this one has been cultivated since the late 1500's.

A recent selection of the Persian fritillary, rather rare and expensive but quite showy, is Ivory Bells.  It gets up to about four feet high, with larger, ivory-colored flowers.

I have tried and grown about a dozen different fritillary species in my USDA hardiness zone 4 gardens.  One of my favorities is the Assyrian fritillary (Fritillaria assyriaca).  It gets over a foot tall, with narrow bluish leaves up the slender stems.  Atop each stem are several small reddish bronze bells, with gold rims and gold insides.  I have these scattered throughout low perennials such as heathers and coralbells, above which they rise each spring.  Grown in gardens since 1874, this fritillary naturalizes well, and prefers filtered shade.

A Turkish fritillary (Fritillaria michailowskyi) is similar to the Assyrian one, only shorter, and its flowers a reddish purple with yellow rims and insides.  Another Turkish fritillary (Fritillaria pontica) gets to about one foot high, with large, greenish white flowers with brown edges.  There are one to three flowers per stem.  It prefers part shade. Similar to the latter is another (Fritillaria acmopetala), only taller and its flowers are olive green with brown insides.

There are even more fritillaries you can find in specialty bulb catalogs to add spring color to your gardens with some unusual bulbs that should last for many years.

Return to Perry's Perennial Pages, Articles