Fritillaria involucrata I’ve always been charmed by the curiously colored bells of fritillaries, which generally "chime" in by April or early May here. One of the most popular is called guinea hen flower (Fritillaria melagris). As the banner image illustrates, its checkered pattern resembles the mottled hues of those farmyard birds. Since we've grown the hens as well as the flowers, I can testify to the similarity.

The plant also has been known as snake's head fritillary, probably because that mottling resembles scales as well. Many other members of the family also dress in unusual colors. I once paid more than I should have for Fritillaria sewerzowii, aka Korolkowia sewerzowii, because I was fascinated by the dusky chartreuse and chocolate shades of its flowers.

Fritillaria sewerzowii The fritillary clan also offers some of the "black sheep" so popular these days, including chocolate lily (Fritillaria camschatcensis), actually more deep purple than brown. It produces only a few dark bells per plant, but the Persian lily (Fritillaria persica) sends up a 3-foot carillon of them.

Unfortunately, a few species—usually the most expensive!--tend to disappear after their first year of bloom. I'm never sure whether our often wet Pennsylvania climate has rotted the bulbs or whether villainous vermin have dug them up. Since our numerous cats have pretty much suppressed the vermin population, I suspect excessive water is the more likely culprit.

Fritillaria Some fritillaries--especially those whose bulbs have hollow centers--prefer very well drained soil and dry summers. Vendors often will recommend that such bulbs be planted on their sides rather than their bases to prevent rotting. Lightening the soil with grit may also help. However, even that doesn't always save them here.

Fortunately, guinea hen flower survives better, probably because it actually likes water-soaked soil and grows wild in swampy ground in England. Its dusky, dangly blooms make a pleasant contrast to daffodils in spring bouquets, A brown-tinged green-flowered fritillary which may be either acmopetala or pontica also has persisted through many springs here, as has a species with smaller, mostly purple flowers, possibly fox’s grape (Fritillaria uva-vulpis). (Because I've tried so many fritillaries over the years, I tend to lose track of which is which, including the green one to your left which may or may not be Fritillaria thunbergii.)

Fritillaria imperialis Fritillary bulbs usually are planted in autumn. Those of smaller varieties should be set only 2 to 4 inches deep, those of crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis) 5 to 8 inches down.

Although the "pros" outnumber the "cons" for these flowers, some members of this family are reputed to have an unpleasantly “foxy” scent. Gardeners who live where lily beetles are a problem also should keep in mind that those beastly bugs like fritillaries too.

Their seeds require cold treatment to germinate. You either will need to sow them outdoors in autumn for germination in spring or you can place them in damp paper towels in your refrigerator for several months instead. I vaguely recall inducing some to sprout once, but what I then did with the seedlings remains a mystery!

They often take five years to reach flowering size, so I would advise that you grab reasonably priced fritillary bulbs instead, whenever you can get them. Just as Will Rogers never met a man he didn’t like, I've yet to encounter an ugly fritillary!


Photos: The banner image is by Rictor Norton and David Allen, courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons and this license. The antique image is from the 1832-1833 Annales de Flore et de Pomone: ou Journal des Jardins et des Champs, Vol. 1, courtesy of plantillustrations.org. The other photos are my own.