Snakes Head Fritillaria

A group of mainly spring-flowering bulbs that include tall majestic crown imperials and the low growing, dainty snake's head fritillary. Not the easiest of plants to grow and establish but they do provide an unusual and interesting addition to the borders in spring.

Family: Liliaceae (lily)
Botanical Name: Fritillaria
Common Names: Fritillary

Foliage: Deciduous (dies back after flowering). Erect, leafy stems or lance-shaped linear leaves. Green or greyish-green.

Flowers: Racemes, clusters or single nodding bell-shaped flowers.

Flowering Period: Spring to early summer.

Soil: Fertile, moisture-retentive but well-drained soil (chalk, clay, sand or loam). Except for F. meleagris which prefers moist ground. Any pH.

Conditions: Full sun or light dappled shade. Can be grown in any aspect.

Habit: Upright.

Type: Bulbous herbaceous perennial.

Origin: Northern temperate zones.

Hardiness: Fully hardy in most regions of the UK.

Planting and Growing Fritillaria

Most forms thrive in fertile, humus-rich, well-drained soils. The bulbs dislike hot dry summers, so keep the soil moist by providing summer shade.

Handle the fleshy bulbs with care as they are easily damaged. Plant bulbs around four times their own depth in the autumn. Place a layer of coarse sand or fine grit beneath the bulbs to improve drainage. Plant F. imperialis at least 8in (20cm) deep and on its side, so the crowns do not collect water.

The Snake's-head fritillary (F. meleagris) inhabits moist meadows in the wild, so they look good naturalised in short rough grass. Other possible planting sites could be an undisturbed shady border or bordering a pond or pool.

Crown Imperials (F. imperialis) are big blowsy plants that look great as a focal point in spring bedding. They also look good in groups among other herbaceous plants in the border.

Taking Care of Fritillaria

Cut the stems back as they die down in early summer.

Pests and Diseases

Generally disease free. Susceptible to slugs and lily beetle attack.

Propagating Fritillaria

The bulbs are best left undisturbed for several years to fully establish. Therefore, it is better to buy new bulbs from a garden centre (or other retail outlet) rather than lift and increase from offsets, which can set back flowering.

The Snake's head fritillary (F. meleagris) is often sold fully grown in pots, which, although more expensive, can be the easiest way to get them established. Fritillaria will often self-seed if conditions are good.

Seed can be sown outdoors when ripe under the protection of a coldframe. However, they can take four to six years to flower.

Popular Varieties of Fritillaria

Fritillaria acmopetala is one of the easiest forms to grow. It has narrow grey-green leaves with pale green flowers, with maroon on the inner petals in mid spring. Height to 18in (45cm)

Fritillaria imperialis (crown imperial) the largest of the fritillaries, produces impressive clusters of large red, orange or yellow flowers, on tall thick stems in mid spring. Each flower cluster has a crowning tuft of leaves. Popular cultivars include 'Aurea-marginata' (orange-red flowers), 'Aurora' (orange-yellow flowers) and 'Rubra' (deep red). Height from 2 to 4ft (60cm-120cm), spread to 12in (30cm).

Fritillaria meleagris (snake's-head fritillary) has narrow lance-shaped leaves and bears delicate flowers resembling large drooping bells with purple chequering, in late spring. Height to 12in (30cm), spread to 3in (75cm). A white form ('Alba') with green or pink chequering is also available.

Fritillaria michailovskyi is a particularly attractive miniature form, with maroon-purple nodding bell-shaped flowers that are tipped with golden yellow, in early to mid spring. Ideal for a cool shady position in the rock garden. Height to 8in (20cm).

Fritillaria persica produces tall stems topped with terminal racemes (loose spikes) of small maroon to red or greenish-purple bells, in late spring. Height to 3ft (90cm), spread to 8in (200cm). The popular cultivar 'Adiyaman' has deep, plum-purple flowers and grey-green leaves.

Fritillaria pontica a fairly insignificant form that grows reliably well in UK gardens. It produces single lemon green flowers, suffused with brownish purple, in spring and early summer. Once established it self seeds readily. Height to 9in (22cm).