Spring flowering bulbs surely kick-start the growing season with their displays of bloom. Bright-red tulips, brilliant-yellow daffodils, and cobalt-blue grape hyacinths provide vivid colour to many Prairie gardens at the time when many other perennials are still just awakening from their long winter sleep. One spring-flowering bulb that I really enjoy in my garden is fritillaria, given to me by a gardening friend three years ago.
She had several clumps of these flowers in her farm garden – the bulbs multiply quite rapidly and the clumps get larger and larger, so she gave me a nice big clump that she had dug up with her gardening spade. I simply planted the clump as it was; I didn’t shake it apart, and the clump has bloomed prolifically ever since. I have learned since, that fritillarias do not like to be disturbed and will take several years to bloom if they are dug up and divided – which should only be done every six years or so.
Fritillarias are actually members of the lily plant family, and like most bulbs, they demand excellent drainage. Bulbs, including fritillaria, will rot in the ground if water is allowed to pool for any length of time in the area where they are grown. Before planting bulbs, check to see that there is adequate drainage to take away snowmelt water and rain from heavy summer storms. One trick that I use is to put a handful of sand in the bottom of the planting hole and place bulbs on top of that. I always use this technique when I plant lilies in the very heavy clay soil of our area.
Fritillarias have lovely pendant flowers that are cup shaped or bell shaped. Sometimes they have a checkerboard pattern of lines on the petals. Mine do not, and the blooms are cream coloured, but I have seen mauve and purple ones as well. I believe my fritillaria is Fritillaria meleagris, which is rated Zone 4. I have never mulched the plants in the fall and they seem to survive just fine.
Fritillarias bloom in early spring. I have mine in the front rose garden among the hardy roses. After the flowers have faded, I cut off the flower stalks which are about 30 cm tall, and allow the leaves to naturally dry off over time. By midsummer they will have manufactured enough food to nourish buds for the next year and they can be removed, allowing the bulbs to enter a dormant state. My fritillarias get plenty of water in the rose bed during the summer and I make a point of keeping the plants well watered in the spring also, while they are developing and when they are in bloom.
Fritillarias will thrive in full sun because they bloom before the hot weather arrives. Many people have them planted in dappled shade or in woodland gardens.
While they can be used as cut flowers, they have a rather unpleasant odour so they are not commonly used for this purpose. Because they do not like their roots disturbed, fritillarias are not usually grown in containers.
There is a variety, Fritillaria imperialis, – often called “Imperial Crown” which is one of the “large flowering” fritillarias. It produces flower stalks over a metre tall that terminate in clusters of red-orange blooms. This variety is a Zone 5 plant and would have to be grown in containers in our area; the bulbs would be left in the pots for winter storage and not be disturbed so that the bulbs would be sure to bloom the following year. I may buy some of these bulbs – they often are seen on bulb display racks in retail outlets in the fall and this would be an interesting experiment. However, I am glad I already have my hardy fritallarias in my front flowerbed to treat me every spring.
– Albert Parsons writes from Minnedosa, Manitoba