Magnificent plants with exotic blooms, fritillaries are too seldom seen in American gardens. Why are these easy-to-grow bulbs so uncommon? Is it because of their unflattering common names, such as “Stink Lily”? Is it the nearly black stalks and blooms of several of the species, so different from the pastel tones of other spring-blooming bulbs? Or is it simply that fritillaries haven’t yet captured our imagination?

While other Fritillaries ride high in the garden, this one stays low, keeping nibbling animals from venturing into the border!

Richly colored and elegantly held, these blooms are simply breathtaking.

Fritillaries are Great Garden Helpers!

First, to be practical: While fritillaries do not stink, neither do they smell like roses. When you get up close to them, they have a musky, wet-dog aroma. It’s not something you want in the vase on the breakfast table. But these flowers are not meant for humans to sniff — they have another purpose! Their aroma keeps rodents, rabbits, even deer away. Thus, many gardeners use fritillaries as guard plants to encircle the vegetable patch, or to form a barrier around tender ornamentals, such as Hosta.

One final practical advantage of Fritillaries: most of them will naturalize beautifully over time. Where happy, they set up colonies, and so a single planting this season could result in a permanent, ever-increasing installation!

Fritillaries have Terrible Names

If you thought Stink Lily was bad, get ready for what our ancestors came up with when they really put their minds to it: Leper Lily and Snake’s Head. The leper reference comes from a bell that lepers were required to carry, warning others of their approach. As for Snake’s Head, we should probably reserve all snake references for Arisaema, don’t you think?

Probably the violet-to-black look of some Fritillary blooms, as well as their bell shape, inspired both common names. More modern gardeners have tried to bring Checkered Lily and Guinea Hen Flower into prominence, and of course F. imperialis gets a pass with Crown Imperial, but who is ever going to forget the medieval echoes of those original common names? For all the press they get, Fritillaries should really bloom around Halloween!

Fritillaries are Beautiful and Various

Yet despite their gothic appearance and opposite-of-sweet fragrance, Fritillaries are simply stunning garden presences, and have a beauty all their own. Let’s look at just a few of the 100+ species to get a glimpse of the range of this bulb.

F. imperialis – Crown Imperial

Towering over the tulips and leaving the daffodils as mere groundhuggers, Crown Imperial asserts its authority in the spring bulb garden.

Towering over the tulips and leaving the daffodils as mere groundhuggers, Crown Imperial asserts its authority in the late spring bulb garden.

Even people who don’t like other Fritillaries generally love this species. Who can resist these upside-down crowned heads, with masses of short, spiky leaves like pineapple tops? Even the stems are attractive, often sporting burgundy or black tones to enhance the contrast with the (generally) orange or yellow blooms. Crown Fritillary knows it’s a star, too, standing up very straight and tall above all the other bulbs in the spring garden. Only the giant Allium can really give it competition, and what is its simple soccer-ball blooms to the Fritillary’s showerhead of bright color?

Crown Imperials bloom in late spring or even early summer in most climates, which is rather unfair because so does everything else in the garden. They do not get the attention they deserve among Roses and Peonies and all manner of other flowering beauties. Try planting them among your Daffodils and Tulips, even if you have a succession planting of Daylilies there already. Crown Imperial will shine in such a setting, and happily naturalize alongside those spreading Hemerocallis and multiplying Narcissus!

Up to 30 violet-to-black bells grace every majestic stem of Persian Fritillary

Up to 30 violet-to-black bells grace every majestic stem of Persian Fritillary. Wait til the sun backlights them!

F. persica – Persian Fritillary

Like outsized Foxgloves in an Edward Gorey drawing, these dramatic dark purple to charcoal bells dangle from all sides of a tall, thick, sturdy stalk that shades from green to violet. Something about them suggests a candelabra, and when the rising or setting sun catches their petals, they do light up like luminaries. Of course, this is just the species: there are also white-flowered Persian Fritillaries. Together, they are almost begging for Gertrude Jekyll to turn them into a black-and-white border!

These fern fronds are rather upright and rigid, as if competing with the Fritillary's military bearing, but most hardy ferns offer splendid soft, finely-cut textural contrast to these dangling bells.

These fern fronds are rather sternly upright, as if competing with the Fritillary’s military bearing, but most hardy ferns offer splendid soft, finely-cut textural contrast to Persian Fritillary’s dangling bells.

Persian Fritillaries bloom in mid-spring, often around Easter, and are somewhat less hardy than Crown Imperials, going only so far north as zone 6 with any dependability. Yet they too naturalize happily where they are content, and they like a bit of shade or at least dappled sunlight in the afternoon. They combine particularly well with Hardy Ferns, too, and of course they are the spring-to-summer follow-up for Helleborus in any shade border.

 

F. meleagris – Guinea Hen Flower

Releases that pest-repelling odor just a few inches off the ground, so it's well away from human noses yet right at snout level for intrusive rodents!

Releases that pest-repelling odor just a few inches off the ground, so it’s well away from human noses yet right at snout level for intrusive rodents!

Offering a nice contrast to the drama of Persian Fritillaries, Guinea Hen Flower is a smaller, kinder, gentler Fritillary. Just about a foot high, it sets spotted, almost checkered 2-inch blooms of maroon and white. The flowers have an elegant lampshade sort of shape, very pleasing. They arise in mid-spring, about the same time as the Persian Fritillaries and a bit before the Crown Imperials.

Like their cousins, they naturalize in sun to part shade, and offer closer-to-the-ground scent protection for other plants. Guinea Hen Flower bulbs also have the huge advantage of being less expensive than most other Fritillaries. Altogether, they are eager to please and quite delightful in woodland borders, mass plantings, and accent shade gardens.

Fritillaries are Ridiculously Easy to Grow

Like all bulbs, Fritillaria is simplicity itself to plant, with one nifty trick:

Plant the bulb on its side, so water won’t soak in from the top.

Plant your Fritillary bulbs deep (8 inches isn’t too much, in the case of big F. imperialis and bigger F. persica!). Throw in some sand or grit to the planting hole to improve the drainage still further, and give the bulbs a nice thick winter mulch. You have now completed the sum total of your work on these plants!

In late spring or early summer, after they have bloomed, Fritillaries tend to go dormant. If you have relied on their height for a special look, consider planting them among Magic Lilies or Spider Lilies, which will pop up unexpectedly sometime in summer to take their place. If you have planted the lower-growing Guinea Hen Flower, Toad Lily makes a fine succession planting.

Do consider planting a few Fritillary bulbs this fall. They are a garden experiment worth trying. And if they fail to wow you, it’s so easy to dig up the dormant bulb and give it to a gardening friend. But chances are, you will fall in love with these useful, distinctive, easy plants, and perhaps one day forget altogether about Stinks, Lepers, and Snake Heads.

About Sappho Charney

Sappho Charney is a garden writer living in Lubbock, Texas.

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