Fancy a change from daf­fodils and tulips in spring? An­nie Green-Army­tage looks at a great al­ter­na­tive

EDP Norfolk - - INSIDE - PHO­TOS: An­nie Green-Army­tage

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.

NFol­low An­nie on in­sta­gram @ an­niegreen­army­tage or twit­ter @an­n­ie­gaphoto

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)

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