University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science
Fall News Article
CONSIDER FRITILLARIES THIS FALL
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
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 of the
selections, either online or from mail-order bulb catalogs. Most
grow into USDA hardiness zone 4 (average annual -20 to -30 degree
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 with a
small tuft of leaves protruding from the top. (Flowers remind me of
something one might see in a Dr. Seuss book.) Generally bright
red-orange, you also can 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.
Being large, crown imperials need planting about six inches deep and
eight or more inches apart. They need well-drained soil, or they’ll
rot. Bulbs have a slight depression in the top, which can collect
water when soils are wet. To prevent this, plant bulbs slightly on
their side. Since this bulb is less hardy (USDA zone 5), you may
plant and treat this as an annual bulb in colder climates. This
fritillary, as with its relatives, doesn’t like to be out of soil
for long so plant them right after you get them.
As with many fritillaries, these are originally native to the
eastern Mediterranean and central Asia. This also is one of the
oldest fritillaries 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.” This plant is a magnet for the bright red lily leaf
beetle and its ugly larvae so, if you have this pest, you may need
some neem-based organic spray.
Perhaps the next most common fritillary, one that you often can find
at local garden stores along with the crown imperial, is the guinea
hen flower (Fritillaria meleagris). It also is 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 (said as “frit-ill-AIR-ee-ah”) 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 often is 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. Also
unlike its relatives, it prefers dappled shade but will tolerate
sun, while most fritillaries like sun but will tolerate part shade.
Like most fritillaries, bulbs are relatively small so need planting
only three inches deep, and three inches or more apart.
Checkered lily often is found naturalized, growing in huge masses,
in moist meadows of northern Europe and Scandinavia. Similarly, in
the garden it is most attractive when planted in groups of six or
more Above the very thin leaves, the flowers are single on stalks
only about one foot high. Although the fritillaries are usually
listed as deer, rabbit and woodchuck 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 grows up to about
four feet high, with larger, ivory-colored flowers. Similarly new
and rare is Purple Dynamite Persian fritillary. This sport of the
species has glossy, mahogany garnet-colored flowers. With
mahogany-plum flowers, similar to the species, only with two stalks
per bulb is the new Twin Towers Tribute (named in tribute to these
One of my favorites of the less common species 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
A Turkish fritillary, Michael’s flower (Fritillaria michailowskyi),
is similar to the Assyrian one, only shorter, and its flowers a
maroon or 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 fritillary (Fritillaria
acmopetala), only taller and its flowers are olive green with
A Siberian fritillary (Fritillaria pallidiflora), native to
the Himalayan mountains and Asia Minor, is quite hardy and less
common. The soft chartreuse-yellow bells, with reddish-brown spots
inside, are held about one foot high. This bulb was first grown in
gardens in 1857. Another rare fritillary from central Asia and the
mountains of Iran, the Turkmen fritillary (Fritillaria raddeana),
is similar to the crown imperial in hardiness and habit, only with
more delicate pale greenish-white flowers.
There are even more fritillaries, which you can find in specialty
bulb catalogs, to add spring color to your gardens, with some
unusual bulbs that are relatively easy to grow. While some
selections make eye-catching annual spring flower specimens, others
make long-lived perennial spring flowers massed in borders or
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