American Fritillaria

Jim McKenney
Mon, 04 Sep 2006 18:34:19 PDT
The timing of Paul's query is prefect: I've been checking my American
Fritillaria this week in anticipation of the growing season ahead.

I would like to keep the ball rolling on this topic and in particular get
growers on the east coast of North America to give some input. 

I wish I lived around the corner from Jane McGary so I could drop in now and
then to check things out and see first hand what she is doing - or at least
experience the weather in that part of the country. It's been surprisingly
hard for me to understand the requirements of many west coast plants. 

Between Jane McGary's comments and those of Ian Young in his SRGC Bulb Log
Diary, I've learned a lot about frit culture during the last two years. But
I need to learn a lot more.  

Here's some background to put my comments into perspective. I'm a newbie
with respect to growing the North American Fritillaria. Decades ago as a
teenager I obtained bulbs of some of the North American species, but nothing
good came of them. At that time I was utterly clueless about their

Four or five years ago I obtained bulbs of F. glauca and F. pudica from the
John Scheepers company. Each of these went on to grow and bloom beautifully.
They were planted in a raised bed outside and given no other special
consideration. After blooming and dying down, the plants of F. glauca were
never seen again. The plants of F. pudica put up a bit of foliage for a year
or two more, but they too eventually disappeared. Obviously, I didn't know
what I was doing. But these plants were so beautiful and interesting that I
resolved to learn more and try again. 

One thing I did was to examine very carefully the photographs in Rix &
Phillips: from looking at these, I got the impression that many of the North
American species grew in what, by eastern North American standards, were
seemingly very dry conditions. I know now that part of that impression is
due to the fact that on much of the west coast the rain falls in the autumn
and winter, and by the time some of the frits bloom things have already
started to dry out for the summer.    

All of my current bulbs come from Jane McGary; the first of these were
obtained in late summer 2005, so I've had exactly one year's experience with
these. The sorts I received last year are Fritillaria biflora, F. biflora
"grayana", F. eastwoodiae, F. liliacea, F. pudica, F. purdyi, F. recurva,
and F. striata. Here's what I've seen so far during this first year:

Watering: All of these were grown in pots kept outside in a makeshift frame.
The bulbs were received in late August, but I didn't pot the bulbs up until
late October, and they were watered once then to get them started; they were
not watered again much if at all until I saw growth above ground. Once there
was growth above ground, I watered them whenever I was watering the other
plants with which they grew. When they came into bloom, I took that as a
signal to stop watering.

One reason these were not watered until I saw growth above ground is this:
among the species I tried many years ago was Fritillaria recurva. In
retrospect, I now realize that the bulbs I received back then were not
blooming size. But although these bulbs amounted to nothing, I did learn
something about them: after I planted them, I checked them continually and
was perplexed to find that they showed no signs of growth throughout the
autumn. The bulbs were evidently sound and seemingly healthy, but there was
no sign of growth - not even an attempt to produce a few roots. From this I
concluded that they are programmed to begin growth later in the year.

The word "they" in the preceding sentence is a clue to my limited
understanding of this group. Frits grow from the Mexican border right up to
the Bearing Straits: surely they all don't have the same requirements. But
from my limited east coast perspective, it's hard not to generalize. And at
my stage of understanding, everything I'm doing is based on generalizations.

Dormancy: Rightly or wrongly, I assumed they would not survive our summers
in a moist medium and thus kept them dry. In fact, I was so concerned about
their being dry enough that I brought all of the pots inside for the summer.
I have been examining the bulbs this week and now realize that I've kept
them too dry. Some show shriveling. Next year I'll keep them outside, in the
shade, under cover, but fully exposed to our typically very humid local
summer atmosphere.

Hardiness: last winter was one of the mildest on record here. The pots were
in a hastily constructed cold frame placed near a house wall with a SW
exposure. The cold frame was covered nightly with a double ply plastic tarp
whenever overnight temperatures were predicted to drop much below freezing.
We did not experience much cold last winter: there were no periods where the
temperature remained below freezing day and night for weeks at a time (this
sometimes happens here). Even those plants which produced foliage in mid
winter never showed any evidence of cold damage. I mentioned above that the
plants were in a cold frame; that's a bit misleading. This "cold frame" had
no lights (glass cover): whatever cold protection it provided came from its
site (near a house wall) and the nightly cover by the double ply tarp.

Compost: I was guessing here and used a mixture of the local loam and
perlite, roughly 50/50. I did not sterilize the local loam. 

Light: the plants had bright light, sunlight on most days, from about 11
A.M. on. 

Feeding: a slow release fertilizer was used in the medium when it was
prepared. Once the plants were in growth, a 10-10-10 fertilizer was
sometimes  dissolved (to the extent that it would dissolve) in the water
used to water the plants. 

The results? Well, I still have a lot to learn, but where the results were
good, I am sufficiently encouraged to keep trying. 

The material as received varied in size: some were blooming sized bulbs,
some were little guys requiring another season or two to bloom. There was
one immediate loss: Fritillaria striata turned to mush before I even planted
it (it was received in seemingly good condition in late August; I didn't pot
up its congeners until late October; "my bad"). F. purdyi grew well but did
not bloom. I examined the bulb at the end of the growing season and it was
very encouraging. I examined it again a few weeks later and most of it was
gone: two little pieces remain, one of which has something which suggests a
sprout forming at the edge of the bit of bulb left. Fritillaria eastwoodiae
bloomed and formed a nice fat bulb covered with rice grains. When I checked
it yesterday, it seemed to be slightly dried out: I soaked it overnight -
we'll see what happens. Fritillaria biflora "grayana" bloomed and formed a
nice bulb. None of the others bloomed, but most did grow well and form nice,
slightly bigger bulbs. The exception was Fritillaria pudica: it formed
smaller bulbs, which is what the top growth produced had led me to expect.  

From this one year's experience I think I have to finesse the summer drying
business. This year I simply stopped watering the plants when they came into
bloom. The medium in the pots seemed to keep some moisture in the bottom two
or three inches all summer - even when the pots were brought inside. That
was a big surprise, and I blame the near loss of F. purdyi on that residual

Last winter was a gift: I was utterly unprepared for a bad winter, and I got
off easy. If this winter proves to be a typical winter, I may have a very
different report next year, especially with those species which begin to
grow in mid- to late winter.  

I'm inclined to say that these North American Fritillaria are not garden
plants in our climate, although long ago Mrs Wilder reported some success
with certain species as garden plants over a period of several years. That's
more than I expect with our high summer soil temperatures combined with
summer moisture.

That they are a challenge in our climate is a given: but isn't that what
makes it interesting? 

Jim McKenney
Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, USDA zone 7, where Fritillaria culture can
be like opening that little box and throwing the dice. 

----Original Message-----
From: []
On Behalf Of Paul Cumbleton
Sent: Monday, September 04, 2006 4:23 PM
Subject: [pbs] American Fritillaria

I'd like to ask for some comments about cultivating the American
Fritillaria, especially pot cultivation under glass. Reviewing our
collections during re-potting here at Wisley it becomes apparent that we
grow the Europeaen Frits much more successfully than the Americans. If
members of the list would share their experiences perhaps I could come to
some understanding of why this may be. So I'd like to go back to basics and
ask for information about their cultivatory requirements. Particularly,
comments on the following would be most welcome:

Watering - approximately when should you start in the fall? (We usually give
their first drink around the start of October, depending on temperatures at
the time)
Dormancy - do you keep totally dry or slightly moist?
Hardiness - are all truly hardy or should any be kept frost-free?
Compost - are any fussy about pH, and do any require something other than
the usual types of free-draining bulb composts?
Light - do you grow in full sun or do any require a bit of shade?
Feeding - comments??? (more a bag of worms than the other topics!!)

Any other hints and tips?

A good discussion on this would be most welcome

Paul Cumbleton
Now moved to Middlesex, UK, real close to Heathrow Airport
Zone 8

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