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Frittilaries

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Oh, my aching muscles...

These unusual bulbs will set you apart from the tulip and
daffodil crowd!
Fritillaries are very charming additions to the spring garden, adding a quiet beauty which is in contrast with the exuberance of other spring bulbs. They are closely related to the lilies and look somewhat like wildflowers because they have not been hybridized and “improved” as the tulips and daffodils have been.

To grow them well, the gardener should remember certain things they need. For example, very few bulbs like wet feet at any time and Fritillaries, especially, appreciate fast-draining soils. In my garden, on a north-facing slope, I grow them in sunny screes.

These raised beds also house thirsty shrubs which drink up all extra water after the fritillaries bloom. I also grow them in container gardens. They are like many plants: give them a decent place to grow and they will thrive, fuss with them too much and they may go off to “greener” pastures.
All fritillaries (and many other bulbs) should be planted the following way: Dig a hole at least four inches deeper than the bulb requires, pour in four inches of drainage material such as small gravel, crushed rock, coarse sand, broken pots, or whatever similar material is available. Place the bulb upright on top of this drainage material, and pack a handful of the drainage material around the bulb as you fill in the hole with soil. The more drainage material close up around the bulb, the better.

For most soils, the best garden soils are mixtures of coarse sands, leaf mold, and a good loam.

In the wilds, fritillaries, tulips and many daffodils grow in heavy clay and adobe soils in climates where they become dormant in the hot, dry summers. We seldom want such hot dry conditions in the garden, and in the maritime Northwest such conditions are hard to achieve. We must substitute with rocky and gravelly soils which are lighter than clays and adobes, but rich in minerals.

In good growing conditions, most fritillaries, tulips and other plants will seed themselves around in a welcome way. Some fritillaries, and many wild tulips will increase rapidly when soil and growing conditions are to their liking.

Fritillaria Meleagris
The fritillary most commonly found in Seattle gardens is F. Meleagris. The bulbs of this European native, was used for food by the soldiers of the Roman Army, who brought them along when they invaded England. It is still found growing “wild” in England near old Roman Army camps. Therefore, it can’t be very hard to grow.

Each April, this “Checker Lily” gives us square-shouldered bells hanging from foot-tall stems, with one or more bells per stem colored either white or maroon with white checkers.

The bells are about an inch wide and almost twice as long. It grows in full sun, part shade and in light shade under thirsty shrubs. Good companion plants are ferns, small wild flowers such as Anemone Nemerosa and bleeding heart (Dicentra).

Fritillaria Imperialis
This traffic-stopper is about three feet tall, with clusters of scarlet, orange, or yellow flaring bells, each about two inches long, joined in a cluster with a leafy topknot. It grows wild in northern India and the Middle East, and has been cultivated since the sixteenth century. In Seattle, it grows best in full sun with perfect drainage.

It naturalizes in the Palouse country of Eastern Washington, and needs regular division there. Here in Seattle the increase is less dramatic. Because of its warm, bright colors, it should be placed carefully. It blooms at the same time as Rhododendrons and may clash with their rosy, cool colors.

Fritillaria Persica
This Asian species has long been grown in England and in some American gardens. It requires drier and sunnier conditions than the two species mentioned above. It is about two feet tall, with twenty or more smoky-purple bells at the top of the stem. I grow it under the eaves in full sun. Its luscious color combines with other smoky colors, soft whites and grey-leaved plants. It is stunning among dusky pink- and plum-colored flowers and among ferns.

Fritillaria Pallidiflora
The squarish, creamy-white bells of this species bloom later than the species mentioned above, sometimes not opening until mid-May. It likes more shade than the others, but not the shade of overhanging trees or shrubs. A position to the north of such shrubs, or north of a tall rock is ideal. Thirsty ferns are good companions, and my F. Pallidifloras grow among some native Miner’s Lettuce, which came to my garden as seeds in woodsy soils I brought from my father’s woods many years ago. F. Pallidiflora gives me no problems.

Fritillaria Michaelovskii
This fairly recent introduction to cultivation has become available to gardeners through the efforts of Dutch bulb growers. It is a nearly perfect rock garden plant, becoming popular with Northwest gardeners because it is relatively easy to grow here. It is four to eight inches tall, with one or more mahogany bells with golden-yellow tips. Michaelovskii welcomes a sunny, well-drained location. Its bright colors combine well with creamy and yellow flowers. I keep it away from rosy, blue or purple flowers. If well-placed it is a show-stopper.

This fall, select a few fritillaries to add variety and interest to your garden next spring!

NWGN archive published September 1997

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