Fritillaries: from dainty to flamboyant

Little cup-shaped flowers

You might not be familiar with the name, ‘fritillary’, but you are already acquainted with the Checkered Lily and the Crown Imperial. Actually, these are the two most familiar fritillaries. The Latin word, fritillus, means ‘dice cup’ in reference to their cup-shaped flowers. In addition, the markings on a Checkered Lily look something like dice. Almost all fritillaries bloom in April and May.


The modest Checkered Lily and the eccentric Crown Imperial

Fritillaries are endemic to various parts of the world: China, central and southern Europe, and North America. Over the years, various species have found their way into gardens. Here are just a few species from this highly varied genus:

Fritillaria meleagris – Checkered Lily

This plant produces dainty purple flowers that resemble the eggs of lapwings. It reaches a height of 12 inches. ‘Alba’ produces white flowers.

Fritillaria michailovskyi

Its refined reddish brown flowers with bright yellow margins sway like skirts in the breeze. It reaches a height of 8 inches.

Fritillaria imperialis – Crown Imperial

Their flamboyant flowers can be yellow, orange-red or red. Since moles dislike the smell of Crown Imperials, this makes these bulbs a good way of repelling these little creatures away from your garden. They reach heights of 40 to 48 inches. ‘Maxima Lutea’ produces large lemon-yellow flowers followed by eye-catching seed pods.

Fritillaria persica – Persian Lily

Their pearls of aubergine-colored flowers adorn a stem reaching 36 inches in height. The greenish-white flowers of ‘Ivory Bells’ display an ivory glow.

Fritillaria raddeana

These enchanting cream-colored flowers with conspicuous yellow stamens often appear as early as the end of March.

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So many uses

Fritillaries are shown to good advantage either in groups of the same or more than one species in their genus. They also combine attractively with other bulbous plants or perennials. Imagine a grouping of late-flowering daffodils and the purplish-red bells of Fritillaria persica. Most fritillaries will also thrive in pots. Nice on the patio or next to the front door!

Tips for growing the prettiest fritillaries

Like other spring-flowering bulbs, fritillaries should be planted in October or November. How to plant and care for your fritillaries:


  1. The bulbs have no protective skin, so they will dry out quickly. This means you should plant them as soon after purchase as possible.
  2. Plant them in a moist, well drained location that provides either sun or partial shade.
  3. Plant them deep in the soil: small bulbs at a depth of 2.5 to 4 inches and larger ones at 8 inches.
  4. The bulbs of Fritillaria imperialis (Crown Imperial) have a hollow center at the place where last year’s stem emerged. This is at the top of the bulb. To keep water from standing in this indentation, plant these bulbs at a slant.


Provide some extra water during and after flowering. Give taller fritillaries some support. The plants will die back in the autumn but the bulb will survive beneath the soil surface. Some fritillaries will need a bit of special pre-winter care. Fritillaria imperialis will survive a winter more easily if covered by a mulching of leaves or compost. Fritillaria persica should actually be lifted and then replanted in the autumn. And Fritillaria meleagris naturalizes easily, so you can simply leave them undisturbed in the ground and watch them pop up spontaneously in all kinds of places the next year.

Interesting facts about fritillaries

  • Fritillaria imperialis (Crown Imperial) was one of the first plants to be cultivated. Botanist Carolus Clusius planted them in Leiden as early as the sixteenth century.
  • The name ‘Crown Imperial’ (Fritillaria imperialis) refers to the shape of the seed pods that turn upwards and together create the shape of a crown.
  • Fritillaria meleagris (Checkered Lily) occurs growing in the wild in wet grasslands and along streams in the Netherlands but is on the list of endangered plant species.

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