Understated elegance

Massed planting of snakeshead Fritillaria meleagris.
Massed planting of snakeshead Fritillaria meleagris.
Gillian Vine looks at some of spring’s less flamboyant beauties.

Purple Fritillaria persica is a taller species, the flower stems reaching 1m.
Purple Fritillaria persica is a taller species, the flower stems reaching 1m.
A bit of desultory weeding among emerging bulbs and I locate something I thought I’d lost, the so-called Persian lily, Fritillaria persica. The clue was a slightly musky smell when I bruised the bulb, mixed up among snowflakes, Muscari and other oddments.

All fritillarias have this scent, none more so than crown imperials (F. imperialis), whose strong pong English writers describe as foxy. Never having been close enough to a fox to know, I’ll stick with using musky.

That scent has a really positive note, as it deters deer, rabbits and rodents, the latter responsible for damage to many small bulbs.

Introduced into Britain from the Western Himalayas more than 400 years ago, F. imperialis’ bold yellow and orange blooms on 1.3m stems ensured its popularity. Its height means it is usually planted away from paths, so the smell isn’t much of an issue.

The quieter tones of the smaller fritillarias mean they sometimes are ignored, although there are about 100 different species, of which a limited number are available in New Zealand. Bulbs are usually sold potted, but some vendors offer seed and I’ve just spent $15.50, including postage, on three species — F. acmopetala, F. collina and F. tubiformis. With bulbs costing about $15 a pot, I don’t need many to germinate to be ahead of the game.

The pattern on snakeshead fritillaria blooms (F. meleagris) explains why it is sometimes called...
The pattern on snakeshead fritillaria blooms (F. meleagris) explains why it is sometimes called chess flower.
Most common is the European snakeshead fritillaria (F. meleagris), sometimes called chess flower because of the pretty checkerboard pattern on its petals. This stands out on the purple variety but less so on the greenish-white F. meleagris alba. It is easy to grow in semi-shade but, like all “frits” does best in well-drained but moist, fairly rich ground. Left undisturbed, chess flowers multiply nicely.

The flowers of Fritillaria graeca ssp. thessala are bell-like, typical of most fritillarias.
The flowers of Fritillaria graeca ssp. thessala are bell-like, typical of most fritillarias.
Apparently, we owe the presence of this charming bulb to a Mr Arthur McCarthy, of Belleknowes, Dunedin. Mr McCarthy imported F. meleagris bulbs and it took three consignments before any grew. He was probably the same Arthur McCarthy who was a successful exhibitor at Dunedin Horticultural Society shows in 1910-12 and a hybridiser of note.

Fritillarias are related to lilies, so I won’t quibble about F. persica being known as Persian lily. Its dusky purple flowers that hang from the 90cm stems in a line of little bells have a light perfume, unusual in the genus, as most “frits” have no scent. Persian lilies will grow in sun, as long as it doesn’t dry out.

Although all frits come from the northern hemisphere, most are from Europe and the Middle East, but there are some North American species. F. camschatcensis is wide ranging, from Alaska to Oregon, but is native to northern Japan and Siberia, too. Very prolific, the numerous rice-like offshoots appear in their dozens around the main bulb eventually mature to produce deep maroon blooms.

The largest of the fritillarias, crown imperials (F. imperialis) make a bold splash in spring....
The largest of the fritillarias, crown imperials (F. imperialis) make a bold splash in spring. PHOTOS: GILLIAN VINE
F. purdyi is from California and with its clusters of greenish cream, rather open flowers blotched with purplish-brown, it may not appeal to every gardener but it does have a charm all its own.

Three delicate-looking green frits that display well the striped bell-shaped flowers of the genus are F. acmopetala, a native of Cyprus; F. pontica, from southeast Europe and Asia Minor; and F. graeca, from Greece.

F. verticillata takes a different view of markings, meaning they’re inside the pale green flowers, so at flower shows, I’ve seen mirrors placed under the exhibits to display the delicate charm of this Asian species.

A prize-winning specimen of Fritillaria pontica, exhibited at a Dunedin Alpine Garden Group show.
A prize-winning specimen of Fritillaria pontica, exhibited at a Dunedin Alpine Garden Group show.
Specialist shows are excellent places to see some of the less common fritillarias. Unfortunately, this year’s NZ Alpine Garden Society’s show, which was to have been held in Christchurch last weekend, has been postponed because of Covid and the Dunedin group is not running a show this year, either.

Hopefully, they’ll return next year with lots of the special smaller species to promote the charms of fritillarias.

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