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How to Grow Fritillaries

Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.

Guinea Hen Flower growing in my garden.  I love the checkered pattern on the flowers.

Guinea Hen Flower growing in my garden. I love the checkered pattern on the flowers.

If you are looking for something different for spring/early summer flowers, you should consider the Fritillaria family. They come in a variety of sizes, colors and bloom times.

What are Fritillaries?

Fritillaries (Fritillaria spp) are bulbs with pendant flowers that bloom in the spring or early summer depending on the variety. They range in size from 8 inches to 3 feet. My personal favorite is the Guinea Hen flower (F. meleagris) with its purple checkered flowers. Most popular are the Crown Imperials (F. imperialis) which grow to a statuesque three feet and come in either orange or yellow. Other fritillarie species have columns of pendant flowers in white, green and even a purple so dark that it looks black. They all share one virtue: deer don't like them. In fact, the Crown Imperials emit an odor that many people liken to a fox. I've never smelled a fox. To me, it smells of skunk.

Crown Imperial growing in the shade cast by my shed.

Crown Imperial growing in the shade cast by my shed.

Fritillaries are Poisonous

Fritillaries are not edible. They contain alkaloids that are poisonous to both animals and people. There are a few native species that if prepared carefully can be eaten and were, in fact, eaten by the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest. However, those are not the bulbs that we grow in our gardens. Those bulbs originated in Europe and Asia. The bulbs that we grow with the attractive flowers should only be enjoyed in our gardens and not on our dinner plates.

How to Grow Fritillaries

Fritillaries are native to the Northern Hemisphere, specifically the temperate regions such as the western North America, southwestern Asia and the Mediterranean. They are hardy in growing zones 4 through 8. They prefer partial afternoon shade which will extend their blooming period to two to three weeks.

Fritillaria bulbs are rarely seen in big box stores and garden centers. That's because they don't live long out of the ground. You should order them from a catalog or online and plant them immediately when you receive them. If you delay planting them, the bulbs will dry out and die.

The bulbs are susceptible to rot so drainage is very important. Plant them on their sides to prevent water from collecting on them. Smaller bulbs should be planted five inches deep and six inches apart. Larger bulbs, such as the Crown Imperials, should be planted seven inches deep and twelve inches apart.

Prior to planting, the soil should be amended to be very rich. After planting, keep your plants watered. If the soil dries out, the bulbs will dry out and die.

There is no need to deadhead your plants. They will only bloom once. After the flowers die, you can remove them or leave them on the plant to produce seeds.

After your plants have finished blooming, continue watering them to keep the foliage alive and making food for the bulb. Do not remove the foliage until it starts to yellow and die later in the summer.

Fritillaria michailovskyi growing in my garden.

Fritillaria michailovskyi growing in my garden.

How to Divide Fritillaries

Every three years, you should divide your fritillarie bulbs to keep them healthy. Overcrowding encourages disease and insect infestation. Division should be done after the bulbs go dormant in the fall. Carefully dig the bulbs up using a garden fork. Replant them with the proper spacing, 6- to 12 inches apart depending on the size of the plants.

How to Grow Fritillaries From Seed

Unlike spring blooming bulbs like tulips and daffodils, fritillaries can be grown from seed. Allow the flowers to die and make seeds. Then plant the seeds in the fall at the same depth that you plant the bulbs. When the seed germinates in the spring, the foliage will provide the food for the bulb to grow underground. It takes about five years to grow the bulb. The plants won't flower until the bulb is fully grown, so be patient. You might want to establish a nursery bed where the seeds can grow and mature into bulbs. After the five years, you can transplant the mature bulbs into your garden in the fall for blooms the following spring or summer depending on which one you are growing.

Questions & Answers

Question: How can I get rid of the red beetles that infest my fritillaries?

Answer: Those are lily leaf beetles (also infest fritillaries). Here is an article on how to get rid of them:

© 2014 Caren White


Caren White (author) on September 03, 2014:

Flourish, I try to make my hubs interesting as well as informative. Glad you found this one was both. Thank you for reading and commenting.

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 03, 2014:

I love the details you provide: a plant that smells like a fox! Bulbs that appreciate partial shade are what I'm looking for, so thanks for writing about these.

Caren White (author) on September 02, 2014:

I love seeing what's growing in other parts of the world too. Thank you for reading and commenting.

Elsie Hagley from New Zealand on September 01, 2014:

Very pretty little flower. One I haven't seen before. If I d ever see them I will think of you. Thanks for sharing, it's nice to see plants from other parts of the world.

Caren White (author) on September 01, 2014:

I would miss them too! Thank you for reading and commenting.

Stephanie Tietjen from Albuquerque, New Mexico on September 01, 2014:

These kinds of plants are what I miss living in the desert with poor, dry, clay soil. I love the Guinea hen best, too.

Caren White (author) on September 01, 2014:

Don't plant it too close to your house, Pawpaw. It really stinks! Thank you for reading and commenting.

Jim from Kansas on August 31, 2014:

The crown imperial looks like one I might try out.

Caren White (author) on August 31, 2014:

I agree! They look so exotic but they're so easy to grow. Thank you for reading and commenting.

Athlyn Green from West Kootenays on August 31, 2014:

These are such interesting-looking flowers.