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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Fritillaria michailovskyi, Liliaceae

There are over 100 species of Fritillaria and I think this one, F. michailovski, was the first I ever encountered, in the alpine house at the RHS Garden at Wisley, about 50 years ago. There was something about the weird colour combination and art deco lampshade form of the flowers that really appealed to me but it was another 40 years before I got around to growing it for myself.  These days the bulbs are more easily available and considerably cheaper than they were half a century ago. The species comes from the high mountains of North East Turkey and performs best if it's grown in an alpine house, in a  pan of free draining compost topped with grit.

F. michailovskyi is one of the smaller species in the genus and this is the largest, the well-known, 1.5m. tall crown imperial F. imperialis, whose regal appearance is somewhat undermined by its unpleasant foxy smell. This unfortunate aroma may be the source of the belief that the plant repels mice and moles, that presumably think they are in the presence of a sharpd-toothed predator when they smell the plant. There does seem to be some evidence that the plant repels deer, that reputedly avoid it, and some recent biochemical analysis of the plant's nectar has identified the evil-smelling compound responsible as 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol, which I imagine could be the basis for a deer repellent if the effect is as strong as some people claim. Crown imperials grow wild in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Kashmir.

William Robinson, in his celebrated The English Flower Garden, commented that most fritillaries have "dull tinted curiously interesting flowers" and that is particularly true of F.camschatcensis from Japan, Kamchatka and Eastern Siberia. In some forms of this plant the flowers are almost black but their other striking feature is a stench that is said to be truly disgusting. It's a plant for humus-rich soil in light woodland shade. Apparently the bulb is edible and is said to taste like roast chestnuts but I wouldn't be tempted to risk it since several Fritillaria species are known to contain physiologically active substances or are downright poisonous, including ....

... the familiar snake's head fritillary, F. meleagris. Like all fritillaries that I have ever grown this is an extravagant producer of nectar and is very popular with bumblebees when it flowers in my garden in late April. I've been growing it for about 20 years and it now seeds itself around the garden, often in unexpected places, but one of the best ways to grow it is in grass, as William Robinson recommended back in 1883: "It grows freely in grass not mown early", he wrote," and is therefore admirable for the wild garden; its various forms are amongst the most beautiful inhabitants of the hardy bulb garden, and tufts of the chequered or white-flowered variety are amongst the most graceful plants in cottage gardens".