Crown imperials in February? Yes, I know that you plant them in autumn and they flower in April or May. Reading about this remarkable plant in February, though, might lift our spirits as this month is often bleak, even though it’s short.

Grown in Britain since before 1590

Crown imperial fritillaries (Fritillaria imperialis) come from Turkey, Iran and Kashmir and they’ve been grown in cottage gardens in Britain since before 1590.

Crown imperials

Crown imperial plain, Fars, Iran. © Sahehco and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

Stout stems hold large heads of bell-shaped flowers beneath a tuft of bright glossy green leaves rather like a pineapple. They grow 1m/3ft tall, with a spread of 45cm/1.5ft. There are a number of varieties, the oldest of which is yellow (‘Lutea’). There are also orange forms: ‘Aurora’ – orange-red, ‘Orange Brilliant’ – rusty orange and ‘Premier’ – pale tangerine with purple tinged veins. Rubra is red and there are two with variegated leaves (‘Aureo-marginata’ and ‘Argentea Variegata’).

Crown imperials have a foxy smell which people seem either to like or loathe. Some say the smell repels moles and rodents from your garden.

Crown imperials

Crown Imperial (Fritillaria imperialis)
cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Anne Burgess - geograph.org.uk/p/3433351

Planting

The RHS advice note gives good recommendations.

  • Crown imperials need a deep, rich, well-drained loam soil, preferably alkaline, and a warm, sunny position where they can be left undisturbed for many years.
  • Where soil conditions are less than ideal it is advisable to prepare the site thoroughly before planting, digging in some well-rotted manure or rich leafmould and grit. Simply putting grit in the bottom of planting holes on heavy soils will achieve little.
  • Plant bulbs deeply at a depth of at least 30cms/1ft and a similar distance apart. Shallow planting will lead to poor flowering after the first year.
  • It is claimed that planting the bulb on its side may prevent rot when the bulb is dormant during the summer. Over a season, however, bulbs tend to right themselves.

Watch out for (and eradicate) slugs, snails and the bright scarlet lily beetle.

Location

crown imperials

Crown imperial 'Lutea'. © Mariofan and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

To make the best use of space in a border you could follow John Brookes’ advice to plant crown imperials so they grow through peonies. He reasons that ‘both hate being moved and one is over before the other shows much life’.

Crown imperials make a big statement in a pot but they don’t grow as tall as in the open ground. After flowering, plant them out in the garden where they will flower next year.

Fascinating fact

Fritillaries contain the highest quantities of DNA known in any plant or animal species. This makes them of particular interest to plant scientists.

Keep your eyes open for crown imperials this spring. Would they suit your garden?