Several decades ago I got my first glimpse of the crown imperial flower – Fritillaria bulbs – in the garden of another plant lover who specialized in every sort of spring-flowering bulb.
Blooming in the midst of an acre of eye-catching color, the Fritillaria succeeded in capturing one’s attention immediately because of its majestic height, curious form, and the smoky orange hue of its flowers.
I determined to add the crown imperial to my spring garden and was surprised to find it listed widely in bulb catalogs.
It had such an exotic air that I had supposed it might take some searching to locate a source of supply.
This New Crown Imperial Flower Bulb
When I began to read and learn about this “new” bulb, I soon discovered it was I who was new, not the crown imperial.
The most detailed and exuberant description came across dated back to 1629, the publication date of John Parkinson’s Paradisi in Sole.
A London apothecary, Parkinson described a “Garden of Pleasant Flowers,” and his opening sentences are:
“Because the Lilly is the more stately flower among manie and amongst the wonderful varietie of Lillies… the Crown Imperial for its stately beautifulness, deserveth the first place in this our Garden of delight …”
For this uninitiated admirer, there was another surprise in store when learning that the crown imperial is a Fritillaria.
Better-known Fritillarias are modest little spring-blooming bulbs giving no hint they have a relative so spectacular in appearance.
Those most commonly grown vary in height from two to six or eight inches. Fritillaria imperialis, the crown imperial, grows from two to four feet tall. And all I have seen growing come near the four-foot mark.
Parkinson’s rapturous word-picture will give you a clear notion of the appearance of Fritillaria imperialis if you, too, have somehow missed getting to know it:
“the stalk… riseth up three or foure foote high, being great, round, and of a purplish colour at the bottome, but greene above, beset from thence to the middle thereof with many long and broad greene leaves…
confusedly without order, and from the middle is bare or naked without leaves…
and then beareth foure, six, or tenne flowers, more or less, according to the age of the plant, and the fertility of the soyle . . .
The buddes at the first appearing are whitish, standing upright among a bush or tuft of greene leaves…
after a while they turne themselves, and hang downewards…
[The flowers are] of an Orange colour, striped with purplish lines and veines, which adde a great grace…
At the bottome of the flower next unto the stalke, every leafe thereof hath on the outside a certaine bunch or eminence of a darke purplish colour, and on the inside there lyeth in those hollow bunched places, certaine cleare drops of water like unto pearles, of a very sweete taste almost like sugar.”
The plant, says Parkinson, was first brought from Constantinople “into these Christian Countries.”
Evidently his information was accurate for Bailey’s Manual of Cultivated Plants lists it as a native of Iran and the Himalayas.
Planting The Bulbs
The bulb is a large one, yellowish in color, and has a strong odor which Parkinson says “is not unwholesome.”
I should say its other virtues more than make up for this defect. It should be planted in the fall, preferably in October, immediately on receiving the bulb.
Set it into the ground at a depth of six inches, and in a location where it will be shaded somewhat from the strongest midday sun since sun tends to bleach the color from its flowers.
Like the lily, it must have good drainage and mulched in winter. Some say it is not dependably hardy in the northern zones of the United States, and it tends to disappear in four or five years.
So far, I know they have increased satisfactorily in an area rated as zone 4b by the U.S.D.A. (temperature to -20 degrees Fahrenheit or lower).
Even if they should die out in time, it would be well worth replanting them since the bulbs are not excessively expensive and they stage a smash hit in the garden.
The Rapid Growing Fritillaria
Crown imperial almost literally springs out of the ground, making amazingly rapid growth from the time the first shoots appear until it is in full bloom, at about the same time as early tulips and narcissus.
The nodding bell blooms remain attractive for several weeks unless a burst of unexpectedly warm weather comes along.
When faded, they may be removed, but the main stalk and foliage should be allowed to die down completely before cutting it away so as to allow the bulb time to build strength through its leaves toward the production of next year’s bloom.
The foliage does die down fairly quickly, so crown imperial will not give an untidy appearance for long to your border.
There are a number of named varieties of the bulb on the market, with colors ranging from a sulfur yellow through several shades of orange and red. The smoky orange color seems to be commonest and most widely available.
To get the best effect, plant several bulbs in a group, eight or ten inches apart.
Whether you set them into your border or in a woodland or wild garden, you will be amply repaid for your trouble when spring comes and the nodding bells bloom on their tall stalk beneath a tufted cap of green leaves.