Fritillaria imperialis

The crown imperial is a plant with a rare aura of grandeur. John Parkinson gave it the first place in his great book, The Earthly Paradise, in 1629 ‘for its stately beautifulness’. Trekking through the wilds of Persia with tents and ponies in 1927, her greatest moment was when she reached a gorge carpeted with this fntillary and could pick it in armfuls. Though its natural scenery is theatrical, the mountains of Iran and Afghanistan, it condescends to associate well with simpler garden plants and has for centuries been grown in cottage gardens.

A tall, stiff, bulbous plant up to 3 feet (90 cm) high, it is crowned with a circlet of hanging orange or yellow bells topped with a tuft of leaves like a pineapple. If you lift the bells you will find drops of nectar glistening inside. It flowers in spring, and the bulbs are best planted in clumps in a sunny border with a low ground cover at their base so that the strong stalks are not hidden – perhaps dog violets or Geranium songuineum, which flowers later but will surround the lilies with small, fresh green leaves. They like a rich, well-drained soil and are happy with lime. Their only vice is a habit of coming up blind, which usually means a poverty of soil, and if this persists it is best to lift the bulbs and move them to another, wellmanured spot, planting in holes three times the depth of the bulb. Some experts recommend planting the bulbs on their sides to keep water out, for the bulbs are hollow, but, even in the wild, a proportion will fail to flower.

Although they look so strange, many fritillaries are happy in the garden, and if you have a damp, grassy place it should suit the snake’s-head fritillary, F. meleagris, with purpleand-white checkered bells. Or white bells tinged with green. As a child, I used to pick them wild in the Loddon valley, the farmer charging threepence for a large bunch – a forbidden treat today.

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