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  • Sue

Fritillarias - an ambition achieved

Updated: Mar 31, 2022

I love fritillarias, but have had difficulties growing them in France. This has been disappointing because although they look delicate they are tough little souls and I grew three species successfully in Northumberland (35 years ago), where we regularly experienced temperatures of below -10C in winter.

When we moved here I first planted Fritillaria persica Adiyaman, which had thrived in the frozen north. The bed I chose for it, which had been freshly dug, turned into a sump that first wet winter and the bulbs rotted. Two lessons learned - this species really does not like to get its feet wet and when you create a new bed in your garden watch it closely for the first year to see how it is affected by the seasons. You could easily have created your bed in a very localised microclimate. This fritillary (commonly called the Persian fritillary) likes dry conditions and, given these, it can cope with the cold. Think about where it comes from - the dry but extreme climate of Iran, not the soggy corner I had planted it in that winter.

The photograph below shows this species in its natural environment.

However, capitalising on that part of the garden's tendency towards damp, last autumn I planted lots of Fritillaria meleagris bulbs there. This is my favourite fritillary - commonly called the snakes head fritillary. It loves rich soil which retains its moisture. I knew that, given the right conditions, it would grow in SW France because about 15 years ago I came across a grass meadow which was full of them. I had never before seen so many growing naturally in grassland - which is their natural environment. This pasture was on the banks of the river Dropt between Monsegur and Duras, near where we live. The flood plain of the river clearly provided the right nutrients and moisture level for them to thrive and multiply. I am hoping to establish a little pocket of them at the bottom of our garden where similar conditions exist.

This morning I could clearly see the first snakeshead fritillaries starting to flower. They will grow bigger over the next week or so and if we leave them to set seed, and if they are happy, we should have our own miniature fritillary meadow in a few years time.

The adjacent photograph shows one flower just starting to unfurl. You can also get them in white, but only the purple flower has that distinctive chequerboard pattern.

The third fritillary I am experimenting with is very different - a big flamboyant species called Fritillaria imperialis (Fritillaria Crown Imperial). I planted five of these bulbs last autumn. You plant them on their side to prevent rotting as there is a hollow at the top of the bulb which can hold water. They have sprouted very quickly and from nowhere I have five sturdy stems, each about 5cm in height. The flowers of this fritillaria are so big that birds can seek nectar from them. Mine are a variety called rubra - they are a dark orange red and are in our hot garden where they should associate well with the surrounding reds, oranges and yellows. It will be interesting to see what else comes into flower at the same time. Here they are, next to the cowslips in rich soil surrounding a dead tree trunk.

And this is what the flowers should look like.

After years of disappointment with fritillaries in France I have the prospect of a result - it is a good morning in the garden.

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