Fancy a change from daffodils and tulips in spring? Annie Green-Armytage looks at a great alternative
Annie Green-Armytage is a fan of fritillaries
The spring bulb season is upon us, and Narcissus with their bright golden heads are emerging in our gardens and roadside verges. But if you hanker after something a little less, well, yellow, then the fritillary may be just the ticket. Our most common species is Fritillaria meleagris, with elegant tessellated purple and white flowers.
Today we know it as snake’shead fritillary for its resemblance to snakeskin, but the plant’s botanical name comes from the latin word fritillus, meaning dice-box. Roman dice-boxes were made of metal lattice-work, and this pattern was echoed in the flower’s chequered petals.
The fritillary is a British native, growing wild in damp, open grassland. In cultivation it’s more forgiving than many people think, thriving in most situations, in sun or open shade. It comes in varying shades of purple and also in pure white (F. meleagris f. alba), and once established, will happily bulk up in a border or in turf. Fine, slow-growing grass is preferable; it provides less competition for nutrients and the flowers are more easily visible, as they only reach about 20-30cm (7-12in). If you grow F. melagris among more vigorous grass types, make sure you scalp the turf in late winter or early spring before the fritillary leaf tips emerge, so that the flowers stand a chance of being seen.
The fritillary combines well in a border with other low-growing spring plants, contrasting with bright blue Muscari (grape hyacinth), and sunny yellow Primula. For a quieter colour combination, try Anemone nemerosa, the woodland anemone in purest white, or even better, the variety ‘Robinsoniana’ which complements the purple fritillary beautifully with a flush of lavender-pink. Choose a partially-shaded position for this partnership. Alternatively, plant amongst pulmonaria – even if the pulmonaria’s dainty blue and pink flowers have gone over, the spotted foliage will provide an attractive backdrop.
Snake’s-head fritillaries are usually grown from bulbs planted in the autumn, but can also be planted ‘in the green’ like snowdrops, after flowering in late spring. The bulbs are quite fragile, so handle carefully, and plant quite deeply, at three to four times the bulb’s depth. They will naturalise without interference, but to accelerate the process, you can collect seed and sow in early autumn, or dig up the bulbs, divide the offsets and replant. We planted just 25 bulbs in a sunny open spot around 15 years ago and these have multiplied to several hundred with no help from us. I may be a bit sad but spotting the tips of the shoots sprouting amongst the grass in early spring still gives me a thrill.
At the other end of the scale, the largest, showiest fritillary is the crown imperial, F. imperialis. It stands literally head and shoulders above its compatriots, growing to between 90 and 120cm (3-4ft). Its strong stems support groups of statuesque orange or yellow flowers, topped by clusters of spiky leaf-like bracts which resemble crowns, hence the common name.
These plants need a fertile, well-drained spot in full sun to thrive. The bulbs are prone to rot during cold, wet weather, so it can be a good idea to plant them on their side, in order to prevent moisture collecting in the hole left by the flower stalk. Plant in autumn, really deeply, to about four times their depth, and add gravel or sharp sand to the base of the planting hole if your soil is heavy.
Crown imperials make a strong architectural feature in the spring garden at a time when little else in the herbaceous camp has really got going. The orange and red cultivars have dark stems which set off the bright flower colour, and the spiky foliage creates great structure and shape. They team well with later varieties of daffodil, and spring-flowering shrubs like Spiraea and Daphne, but they are also eye-catching enough to stand on their own merits. There are several different cultivars available, including ‘Lutea’ with clear yellow flowers, ‘Rubra’ with orange-red flowers, and ‘Sulpherino’ with rich, marmalade-coloured flowers.
Resembling the crown imperial, but on a smaller scale, is F. raddeana, with pale, lemony-yellow crowns of flowers in mid-spring. It is resilient to cold but may need some shelter from wind. I first saw these in Keukenhof, the renowned bulb garden near Amsterdam, where they were planted as accent plants surrounded by a sea of purple anemones and pale dwarf Narcissus.
Another accent plant is F. persica, its stout stem topped with a spire of purple-brown bells in late spring or early summer. It has been much in evidence recently at the Chelsea Flower Show, so you
will be on-trend if you choose to grow this plant. (Whether or not that is desirable, I will leave you to decide.) This fritillary is clump-forming and hardy, and can grow to just under a metre (3ft) tall, given full sun and rich, well-drained soil.
Smaller and more delicate is the Pyrenean fritillary, F. pyrenaica. It grows to 45cm (18in), making it a good candidate for a mixed spring border. It’s reasonably easy to cultivate, although it still appreciates well-drained soil; as its name suggests, its natural habitat is the meadows of the Pyrenees. The flowers are delicate, bell-shaped and variable in shades of dark purple, with yellow edging.
F. pallidiflora comes from Northern China and Eastern Siberia, so as you might expect, this plant is pretty resilient to our climate, although it needs plenty of sun. It has an AGM (award of garden merit) from the RHS; this may be due to its pale creamy-yellow colouring or its tendency to produce half a dozen flowers per bulb each season. It’s certainly not due to its scent, which, like several of its family, is definitely on the foxy side.
I do love a green flower. F. acmopetala has graceful, green bell-flowers which have delicate reddish-brown blotches on their inner petals. It hails from Turkey, Cyprus and the Lebanon, and is fairly robust, needing fertile well-drained soil and full sun. Another green species is F. cirrhosa, growing to 45cm (18in); similar in look to F. meleagris, with purple tessellations, this needs moisture-retentive soil rich in humus, and does best in cool, damp summers.
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Snakeshead fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) are at home in borders as well as grassland. Here they grow in a border under espaliered fruit, close to the greenhouse
Anemone nemorosa ‘Robinsoniana’ with Fritillaria meleagris
Fritillaria persica with narcissus and muscari behind
Fritillaria meleagris, snakes-head fritillary, catch the low sunlight in their native habitat, naturalised in grassland
LEFT:Crown imperial fritillary (Fritillaria imperialis)growing in woodland
ABOVE LEFT: Fritillaria raddeanaABOVE RIGHT:Fritillaries (fritillaria meleagris)naturalised in rough grass
Fritillaria pyrenaica is clump-forming – here in a border amongst low-growing dwarf conifers and spring flowers, including grape hyacinths (Muscari)