Most gardeners are familiar with fritillaria. Spring catalogs have your daffodils, your crocuses, your tulips, your peonies, your lilies, your other bulbs: less familiar, a little oddball, the conversation pieces of the garden. Much can be said about the fritillaries; the genus (in the family Liliaceae) contains more than one hundred varieties.The showiest of these, Fritallaria imperialis, is popular with gardeners and florists alike. They have a commanding presence; the clusters of large, bell-shaped flowers are brightly colored in orange, yellow or red. They droop from the height of a three-foot stalk, which has an explosion of leaf bracts sprouting from its top. The effect is like that of a pineapple concocted by a mad hatter, only beautiful. Like many of the flowers in its genus, this fritillary has a distinctive odor, which some identify as foxy, skunky, fecal, or marijuana-like.
Fritillaria meleagris is another favorite. This variety is small, with a distinctive purple and white checked pattern on a flower that droops from a six to sixteen inch stem. The oddity of this bloom’s color and pattern has inspired a record number of aliases. Fritillaria meleagris’s common names include: snake’s head fritillary, guinea-hen flower, chess flower, checkered daffodil, frog-cup, guinea-hen flower, leper lily, Lazarus bell, and checkered lily. Vita Sackville-West pronounced it “a sinister little flower, in the mournful colour of decay,” but we think she was just having a bad day. Very few small flowers are as mesmerizing as this spring bulb. It’s a designer’s dream of a flower.