Frit. Imperialis

Jim McKenney
Wed, 07 May 2008 09:30:26 PDT
I’m glad to see a Fritillaria imperialis thread again. I’m going to repeat a
story I’ve told on this forum in the past; it fits nicely into the current
flow of the discussion. 

But first, let me mention that the mini-Fritillaria imperialis, namely F.
raddeana, has done well here treated as a pot plant in a cold frame. It
bloomed again this year for the third year in a row. 

I’ve admitted to my failure with Fritillaria imperialis in the past, and
it’s not simply Schadenfreude which now gives me pleasure when I consider
that I am evidently in the distinguished company of Jane McGary and John
Lonsdale. Ha ha: how many of you know William Walsh's poem Rivals? It
expresses well my feelings about my love affair with Fritillaria imperialis.
Walsh died in 1708; here it is from the Oxford Book of English Verse, with
the text slightly modified (and the meter massacred) to fit this topic:

Of all the torments, all the cares,
With which our lives are curst;
Of all the plagues a lover bears,
Sure rivals are the worst!
By partners in each other kind
Afflictions easier grow;
In love alone we hate to find
Companions of our woe.

Corona imperialis, for all the pangs you see
Are labouring in my breast,
I beg not you would favor me,
Would you but slight the rest!
How great soe'er your rigours are,
With them alone I'll cope;
I can endure my own despair, 
But not another's hope. 

My apologies to the memory or William Walsh, who probably would have known
this plant as Corona imperialis.  

Generally speaking, I think it’s a mistake to dwell too much on failures – I
suspect that even the worst growers among us have enough imagination to
fabricate explanations for the failures.  Focus instead on successes – not
that they are necessarily any easier to understand. 

And I have a success to focus on, one which is in some ways similar to what
Arnold reported. Sometime back in the early 70s I received a dozen bulbs of
Fritillaria imperialis from a Dutch supplier; they were mailed directly to
me from the Netherlands (not that that made a difference). I planted them
here and there around the garden. As usual, all bloomed magnificently the
first year. Several returned the second year without bloom. By the third
year, only one remained. That plant was planted under a copper beech (thus
the similarity to Arnold’s report). Also, and don’t hold me to this, I
vaguely remember dumping a full eighty pound bad of ground limestone or
hydrated lime on that spot.

For the next ten or so years that one surviving plant reappeared but never
bloomed. Then it began to bloom, and for about another ten years it bloomed
yearly. It was eventually a huge plant, easily four feet high and with
proportionately large flowers.  

Then one summer I dumped a wheelbarrow load of something on the crown
imperial site, and that was the end of it – it never reappeared, and when I
dug down to look for the bulb there was nothing there. But it had survived
for about twenty years, and that experience made me a believer. 

I’ve noticed that when growing in the shade of deciduous trees, Fritillaria
imperialis is one of those plants whose foliage expands noticeably as the
trees leaf out. I take that as a hint that it is adapted to life in the
shade of deciduous woody plants.

In a small little tended garden I know in the valley of Virginia (i.e.
between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Mountains) a plant of
Fritillaria imperialis grew for years. The climate there differs little from
the climate here: winters are of comparable severity (perhaps a bit colder
there) and summers are comparably hot and humid and sporadically wet. But
there is one significant difference, and it’s readily observable to the
experienced gardener. The garden flora there is a bit different because the
soil there is full of lime. The garden in question is on old farmland, and
the autochthon is by nature full of limestone. 

Might something as simple as pH  or readily available calcium be the answer
to the culture of this plant? I put that hypothesis to the test last fall
with a few bulbs of both Fritillaria imperialis and F. persica (and also F.
pallidiflora, another species whose stature gives it potential value as a
garden plant). I loaded the planting site with ground limestone. It’s too
soon to tell now because they’ve just finished blooming, but in a few weeks
I’ll be getting hints on their prognosis. These bulbs are in a spot exposed
to sun for several hours during the middle of the day.

If this iteration of the experiment does not work, I’m game to try again
next year in a site under deciduous trees. Also on the roster: trials in
gypsum and in a non-acid forming sulfur source. 

Several dozen other species of Fritillaria have proven to be manageable
here: you would think I might grow the crown imperial, too. I’m not ready to
give up yet. 
Jim McKenney
Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, 39.03871º North, 77.09829º West, USDA zone
7, where several herbaceous garden peonies are blooming already with the
ornamental onions and with tall bearded iris about to join them. 
My Virtual Maryland Garden
Webmaster Potomac Valley Chapter, NARGS 
Editor PVC Bulletin 
Webmaster Potomac Lily Society

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