The large and varied genus Fritillaria comprises more than a hundred species distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere—including the Pacific Coast from Alaska to Southern California. It is a group of plants that many sophisticated gardeners admire and would like to grow, yet few fritillaries are to be seen in western North American gardens. Indeed, even the American species are more likely to be spotted in rock gardens and alpine houses in Great Britain than in gardens in their native range. As an enthusiastic grower of fritillaries for more than twenty years, I feel the need to proselytize for them.
The attraction of Fritillaria lies in its flowers; the foliage is usually tidy and unobtrusive. Although green-and-brown is a broad theme in the blossoms, a comprehensive collection will be much more varied: white in Central Asian F. bucharica, Chinese F. tortifolia, and Californian F. striata; pink in Central Asian F. stenanthera and Californian F. pluriflora; scarlet in our western F. recurva; golden yellow in F. carica from Greece and F. glauca from Oregon and Northern California; pale yellow in western Asian F. raddeana; orange in F. imperialis from Iran and F. eduardii a little farther east; deep violet in forms of F. persica; and near-black in F. nigra and F. obliqua. Some flowers are a single pure color, but more often they are striped or checkered; the latter pattern, known as “tessellation” after its resemblance to mosaic tiles, is what gives the genus the name it shares with checker-patterned butterflies.
If you’ve grown crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis), you know its strong, rather nasty scent; fortunately, few species share this characteristic. Sniffing the flowers up close is not often pleasant, but the only other species I know of that has a truly bad odor is F. agrestis from California’s Central Coast Range; known popularly as “stink bells,” it smells just like dog droppings. One species, also from California, is sweetly fragrant: F. striata flowers in late winter, looking like a miniature Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) and diffusing its fragrance freely.
Seeds Are Best
At the root (or bulb) of the dearth of fritillaries in West Coast gardens is a widespread unwillingness among gardeners to grow bulbous plants from seed. “It takes forever,” they claim. Four or five years from sowing to flowering is not forever in the life of a garden, but most people want to buy mature bulbs. This is a problem with Fritillaria: first, only a few species are available commercially, and most of them are ill- suited for the West Coast; second, and more important, their bulbs do not handle storage and shipping well. They don’t have dry, membranous tunics like those of narcissus and tulips, so they desiccate too quickly. Although many species come from areas where they experience a dry summer dormancy, they spend that period deep in the soil, protected from heat and the dry atmosphere. When fritillary bulbs have been shipped overseas and, perhaps, left on a rack in a garden center for weeks, they are not in good condition. This is especially true of the popular Fritillaria meleagris, which prefers moist soils in nature and in the garden.
I began growing fritillaries from seed in the late 1980s, after the great Portland gardener Molly Grothaus brought a big pot of flowering Fritillaria raddeana to a Rock Garden Society meeting. She told us the bulbs were grown from seed and, later that year, kindly gave me seeds from them. I still have the bulbs grown from those seeds, flowering every year, and some of their descendants. By 1991, I was ordering seeds from the specialist suppliers who advertise in the Rock Garden Quarterly and The Alpine Garden, and from the exchanges run by the North American Rock Garden Society, Alpine Garden Society, and Scottish Rock Garden Club. By 2010, my collection numbered about 110 species, sub- species, and forms, of which only half a dozen were acquired as bulbs.
The best time to sow Fritillaria seed is in mid- to late fall. Sow thinly, cover the large, flat seeds with a quarter-inch of fine grit, and keep them in a cool, well-lit place, protected from predators and watered moderately. Germination will take place at various times during fall and winter, depending on the species. I’ve rarely seen germination in the second year, but I usually keep the pots, as hope springs eternal—even if seedlings don’t. The young seedlings will become dormant sometime in summer. Place the pots in a cool spot and cover them (a sheet of Styrofoam works well) to prevent them from drying out completely. You can keep the seedlings in their pots for another year’s growth, or you can pick out the little bulbs, which resemble tiny pearls, and plant them about an inch deep in a larger pot. At this stage, you do not need to worry about which side goes up— they’ll deal with it.
If you have mature bulbs, you can usually propagate them by division. Many Fritillaria species, including such western Americans as F. affinis and F. pudica, produce numerous “rice grain” bulblets loosely attached to the disk-shaped main bulb. Each grain will make a mature plant in about three years. Some Old World species, such as F. caucasica and F. carica, produce many larger offset bulbs. Californian F. biflora and related species have bulbs made up of fingerlike scales, which can be detached and planted separately. The crown imperial group and F. persica do not make many offsets, so are commercially propagated with specialized techniques.
After two or three years, your seedlings will be ready to plant in the garden. Whether you have grown your own or purchased bulbs, choose a well- drained spot (Fritillaria meleagris can tolerate wetter soils) in sun or part shade. Cover each bulb with soil to about three times its height; some species, particularly western Americans, will pull themselves deeper in the soil over the years. The shorter species are best in a rock garden, raised bed, or container; taller ones can be placed in the border, among shrubs, or under trees. In nature, many species grow amid thin grasses and annual herbs. These are mostly subtle flowers, so a key to planting design is close grouping. Even a species with small green-and-brown blossoms, such as F. elwesii, makes a statement when a dozen or more bulbs present their straight stems in close order.
If you decide to grow fritillaries in containers, take care to keep the pots from drying out too much in summer, becoming hot at any time, or becoming waterlogged in winter. Once the plants are dormant, move the pots into a shady spot and either plunge them in sand or mulch, or give them a light spray of water once every few weeks. I fertilize container- grown bulbs with a soluble “root and bloom” fertilizer at half the recommended strength, once in mid-fall and three times from late winter to late spring. Plants in the garden do well with ordinary border feeding, organic or otherwise, but they do not usually require it.
I have not found insect pests or fungal or bacterial diseases to be a problem on fritillaries, but slugs will sometimes chew a leaf or two. The plants attractive to rabbits and deer and must be protected from them. Western American Fritillaria recurva can often be seen growing up through dense shrubs such as poison oak, probably because this is where the deer cannot get at it. Field mice and voles have left my bulbs alone; I do not know if gophers eat fritillaria bulbs.
If you’re buying bulbs from a mass-market catalog, here are a few observations. Crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis) is a spectacular plant, but gardeners often are disappointed by purchased bulbs that produce distorted growth and disappear after a year or two; this may result from inappropriate growing conditions or from a virus infection. Somewhat more dependable is F. raddeana, but it may need some winter chill to flower well. Fritillaria persica is usually offered under the cultivar name ‘Adiya-man’, a form with large, dark pu ple flowers, but the form supplied may be an inferior one with small brownish bells; ‘Ivory Bells’ is a whitish form currently offered at high price, but you can grow similar forms from seed (a packet of seeds collected by Jim and Jenny Archibald a few years ago in Iran produced all white-flowered plants). The rapidly multiplying F. uva-vulpis is a rather unattractive species frequently misnamed F. assyriaca. Fritillaria bucharica bears a handsome sheaf of white flowers early in the season. If you admire “black” flowers, F. caucasica is a good choice. Fritillaria glauca, from the mountains of California and Oregon, can sometimes be found on offer; it’s a dwarf plant for the rock garden. Fritillaria meleagris is offered everywhere; to be sure of healthy plants, you may want to wait until spring and buy potted specimens, since this species cannot stand dry storage. From eastern Siberia comes F. pallidiflora, a lovely species for the border but probably best suited to cold winter climates. Pale green F. pontica is a great choice for the Pacific Northwest and has the odd feature of producing offsets on stolons, resulting in a nice clump of plants. Fritillaria michalowskyi has striking brown-and-yellow flowers, but purchased bulbs are more likely to disappoint than seed-grown ones.
If you’re ready to venture beyond the Dutch bulb catalogs, take a look at the American bulb suppliers, or take a leap into the seed lists. A West Coast native to start with is the widespread Fritillaria affinis, which includes some named selections such as the huge-flowered triploid ‘Wayne Roderick’ from Point Reyes. Also amenable is F. biflora, a low-growing, variable species with strongly striped petals. Scarlet F. recurva and its even handsomer hybrid with F. affinis (known as F. gentneri) originate in the hills and valleys on the Oregon-California border, where they appreciate light shade and the support of shrubs or grasses. The early golden bells of F. pudica are delightful, but gardeners find it a challenge, probably because it’s sensitive to too much moisture—winter or summer.
The American West has many more species to try. Garden books, mostly by British authors, may tell you these are “challenging” or even “impossible,” but don’t believe it. Give them overhead protection from rain, if you live where wet freezing conditions occur, and a good gritty soil, and you can grow such fascinating species as fragrant Fritillaria striata, fashionably black-and-white F. purdyi, and rose pink F. pluriflora. Bulbs of these that I grew from seed twenty years ago are still flowering and have produced many generations of seedlings.
Mediterranean fritillaries are many, and most are easy to grow. From the mountains of Spain comes Fritillaria pyrenaica, a tall plant with bicolored flowers. One of my best garden performers in Oregon has been F. messanensis from the Balkans; it can be either striped or subtly checked in soft red. A rock garden favorite is F. bithynica, bearing twin bells of soft green that disclose a bright yellow interior when you tip them up. Fritillaria acmopetala is tall and easy enough to plant among shrubs, where its strongly blotched flowers show up well. Rapidly multiplying, dark crimson F. davisii flowers well in dry situations. Bright yellow F. carica looks a lot like F. pudica but is more amenable to garden conditions. Rock gardeners who love huge flowers on squatty stems will go for F. kotschyana from Turkey and F. tubiformis from Italy.
When you’ve collected all of those, there are dozens more to explore, and almost endless variations in color and marking, floriferousness, and size. Their season extends from late winter into late spring, and they require little or no attention while they sleep underground, ready to create the next season of beauty—and seeds to grow and pass on to other gardeners.