Fritillaria meleagris

Fritillaria: everything you need to know about Fritillaria

Often overlooked in favour of more bold spring-flowering bulbs, fritillaries come in many guises from the subtle and intriguing to the dramatic and beguiling. Words Richard Wilford, photographs Richard Bloom

Fritillaria is a genus of summer-dormant, bulbous plants with around 170 species. The leafy stems of the Fritillaria  hold bell-shaped flowers in spring and can be found across the Northern Hemisphere, mostly in areas with a dry summer climate.

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Chastleton House and Garden
© Richard Watson

Fritillaria flowers in spring and grows to approximately 10cm to 1.5m tall. The Fritillaria genus can be grown in sun or dappled shade in free-draining soil, although some need more moisture than others. Fritillaria is dormant in summer, when fritillaries shouldn’t be in waterlogged ground. Most fritillaries are very hardy, surviving temperatures well below -10ºC with RHS ratings ranging from H7 to H4, and are suitable for gardens in USDA zones 5a to 8b.

How to grow Fritillaria

Best growing conditions for Fritillaria

The many species of the Fritillaria are found in a range of habitats so it is difficult to generalise about ideal growing conditions. Some grow in harsh conditions on high mountains, while the snake’s head fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris, grows in low altitude, damp meadows. Thankfully, there are several that can easily be grown in the garden and most will do well in full sun to light shade, or under deciduous trees, shaded from the hot summer sun when dormant.

When to plant Fritillaria

The bulbs of fritillaries should be planted in autumn. Most have fairly small bulbs, although those of the mighty crown imperial can be larger than a tennis ball and have a foxy smell. Species from the Mediterranean region, such
as Fritillaria davisii, Fritillaria messanensis, Fritillaria michailovskyi and Fritillaria acmopetala, will do best with plenty of sunlight and a dry summer.

Fritillaria imperialis 'William Rex'
Fritillaria imperialis ‘William Rex’
© Richard Bloom

The best soil for Fritillaria

Plant the bulbs in free-draining soil or around deciduous shrubs that will take up excess moisture in the summer. To improve drainage, bulbs can be grown in a raised bed, where water will drain more quickly. The soil can also be amended by adding extra grit or sand. If you don’t have suitable garden soil, then this could be a way to grow some of the Mediterranean species or the Central Asian Fritillaria eduardii. Alternatively, try them in pots of gritty, loam-based soil, kept dry but shaded in summer.

Fritillaria persica 'Ivory Bells'
Fritillaria persica ‘Ivory Bells’
© Richard Bloom

How much sun or shade?

The crown imperial also likes plenty of sunlight in spring but is remarkably tolerant of many garden situations. In good, fertile soil that never gets waterlogged, this handsome plant is easily grown. As with many fritillaries, it does well in a spot that is lightly shaded in summer. The same is true of Fritillaria persica.  This makes a great late-spring bulb for a south-facing herbaceous border, the bulbs protected from summer heat by the surrounding perennials. Other easy species for a sunny border include Fritillaria elwesii, Fritillaria uva-vulpis, Fritillaria pyrenaica and
Fritillaria pontica. These tolerate some summer moisture but the main consideration is their location relative to other plants. Although they can be quite tall, they are not imposing plants and they can be swamped by vigorous spring perennials so chose a spot carefully, where you can appreciate their subtle beauty.

In a more consistently shady part of the garden, try Fritillaria pallidiflora or Fritillaria camschatcensis. These do well in a cooler location but avoid deep shade. At the foot of a low wall, in a partly shaded corner with other woodland plants, they will thrive.

Fritillaria uva-vulpis
Fritillaria uva-vulpis
© Richard Bloom

Fritillaria meleagris

The only fritillary to reliably do well in grass is Fritillaria meleagris. It will do best in a damp, shallow hollow in a lawn, lightly shaded by deciduous trees or along a hedge. Plant the bulbs by lifting the turf, placing the bulbs on the soil and replacing the turf. They will flower in mid-spring but make sure the grass is not cut until the fritillary leaves have died down for the summer.

Fritillaria meleagris
Fritillaria meleagris
© Richard Bloom
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Many fritillaries will slowly increase naturally but to speed things up, lift the bulbs in early summer and spread them around, or remove offsets to grow on separately.

Where to buy and see Frittillaria

 

Avon Bulbs, Burnt House Farm, Mid Lambrook, South Petherton, Somerset TA13 5HE. Tel 01460 242177, avonbulbs.co.uk

Hortus Bulborum, Zuidkerkenlaan 23A, 1906 AC Limmen, the Netherlands. Tel +31 6 11889489, hortus-bulborum.nl/english

Jacques Amand International, The Nurseries, Clamp Hill, Stanmore, Middlesex HA7 3JS. Tel 020 8420 7110, jacquesamandintl.com

Kevock Garden Plants, Kevock Road, Lasswade, Midlothian EH18 1HX. Tel 0131 454 0660, kevockgarden.co.uk