Fritillaria demystified

Fritillaria fanatic Kevin Pratt has grown all the plants available in this genus. So he’s the perfect gardener to debunk the myths and teach F&F readers how to grow really, really good Fritillarias.

I am now sure I have grown all the Fritillaria species that have ever been in cultivation. A bold opening statement and one that I’m careful to think about first, but given I held the National Collection for 17 years and grew over 100 species, and have now, over the last 10 years added to my experience with a number of special rarities from Asia and America, I can safely assume I have at least tried to grow all the Fritillaria species in cultivation.

The truth though is that over a third of the 100 Fritillaria are not easy to grow: they require a great deal of time and are best held in specialist collections. Another third are either too expensive or are already in specialist collections, and these specialist growers just never sell or part with their bulbs. However that does leave a field of 30 Fritillaria species, that we as gardeners can grow outside. These hardy Fritillaria can be reasonably purchased, then following a few rules will thrive and quickly bulk-up in our gardens.

There are of course top-tips and rules. There are also a number of changes to words written in my 1997 book The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Fritillaries. A lot of Fritillaria experience has been gained over the last 15 years since publication and I feel the time has come to discuss a few lessons learnt.

During the spring of 2011 it was possible to count 32 species of Fritillaria growing outside in my garden. One American Fritillaria species, eight Asian species and 23 European species. I am going to leave aside the half which are particular to soil, site and winter conditions and here, deal solely with twenty very easy Fritillaria. They are the Fritillaria species, acmopetala, camschatcensis, eduardii, elwesii, graeca, hermonis, imperialis, Kurdica, latakiensis, meleagris, messanensis, pallidiflora, persica, pontica, pudica, pyrenaica, raddeana, thunbergii, uva-vulpis and whittallii.

Small Fritillaria

up to 30cm
F. graeca
F. hermonis
F. kurdica
F. pudica

Medium Fritillaria

30cm – 60cm

F. messanensis
F. pontica
F. pyrenaica
F. whittallii
F. acmopetala

Tall Fritillaria

over 60cm

F. eduardii
F. camschatcensis
F. imperialis
F. pallidiflora
F. persica
F. raddeana
F. thunbergii
F. uva-vulpis

Please allow me to first deal with the amount of moisture that Fritillarias require, because over the last 10 years it has driven me close to madness. I still after 20 years hear journalists, authors and gardeners wrongly bleat on about Fritillaria requiring wet meadows. Most of these writers have little or no Fritillaria growing experience and borrow written material from one or two badly written dated articles. Fritillaria are not aquatic bulbs: they will sit in a state of animation in wet soil but they will not develop or advance in wet soil and will only begin growth after the water has subsided and air is again present in the soil. In the wild, Fritillaria struggle in wet soil and are only forced by nature and man to grow in wet meadows, but this is NOT the ideal growing condition.

Fritillaria need a well drained, airy fertile soil. So, tip number one is that Fritillaria require fertile well drained soil, preferable moist (not wet) in the spring, NOT wet meadows.

I have spent thousands of pounds on Fritillaria. I’ve lost count of how many thousand bulbs I’ve bought, garden centres, flower shows, Dutch wholesale, plant fairs, private hands and specialist collections. I often buy bulbs to further my research or with an aim to complete a full Fritillaria collection. In my experience, you are absolutely wasting your time and money buying dried bulbs in autumn. There is obviously a difference between green freshly lifted autumn bulbs and dried bulbs. Some nurseries sell freshly lifted, clean (green) bulbs, which are beautiful, these will grow healthy roots and establish quickly during the winter. However dry, brown bulbs in sawdust are dead.

Another good time for buying Fritillaria is in the spring. Fully grown, flowering plants from the shows are already established and make a brilliant addition to the garden. You also can see the colours in spring and the full height of the Fritillaria, a clear advantage over buying during the autumn. So tip number two is buy good stock, live green, growing bulbs in the autumn or established live plants in the spring, not dry bulbs in sawdust.

Where should the Fritillaria be planted? There are pointers to follow. Take clear notes of the height, the plants don’t want to be swamped by summer foliage. Nether do the plants want to be grown alone. Most of our easy Fritillaria come from scrub (shrubby) environments. My best Fritillaria have always been seen growing with company, other herbaceous plants and under deciduous shrubs. Fritillaria will grow in grass, but the grass must be poor fescue and not a vigorous ryegrass. You should also understand that the Fritillaria in grass will always be less presentable to those growing in the garden borders, they may look natural in grass, but will not be flourishing. Tip number three is grow Fritillaria in the borders with herbaceous or shrubs, grow them with some other plant root company.

A further problem I’ve encountered is planted Fritillaria in the wrong place and gardeners constantly moving them around. Also gardeners pulling up weeds and not seeing the Fritillaria bulbs wrapped around the roots. Tip number four, plant the Fritillaria and leave them. Fritillaria love ‘do-nothing’ gardeners.

Kevin Pratt is a garden speaker for nearly 30 years and a self employed, hands on gardener, with a hobby for growing rare plants. He has three RHS GOLD medals, and is available for gardening talks to clubs across the UK. Visit his site or email him.

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One Response

  1. Ena Ronayne (@plantmad)

    It’s such a pleasure to read a post where the writer is not only passionate and enthusiastic about his subject but is obviously well versed because has actually worked with his subject in this case wonderful fritillarias.


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