Few genera capture the imagination of plantspeople in the way that Fritillaria does. Green flowers, brown flowers & specialised adaptations (often in response to underlying geology and edaphic conditions) – Fritillaria has it all.
Or at least, that’s my excuse.
Over the last few years, my obsession with this genus has developed (or unravelled, depending on one’s perspective), based on lessons that I have learned from two of New Zealand’s foremost bulb experts, Toni Elliot and Lynne Atkins. One of the most significant revelations for someone from the north of New Zealand is the informal division of Fritillaria into differing groups for the purpose of cultivation.
Whilst my best shot of seeing crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis) in anything approaching splendour is to visit a good friend in Brandenburg, Germany, a large number of species grow within zones that are more comparable to our mild, winter-rainfall climate – notably species from the Mediterranean and California.
Accordingly, the opportunity to grow Fritillaria acmopetala (pictured at the top of this profile) or Fritillaria pontica subsp. substipetala (above) no longer seems like a pipe dream. One of the primary considerations for growing such fritillaries well within our climate is the provision of a genuine summer rest (from water) – a point that is missed in the cultivation of many winter and spring-rainfall bulbs.
Fritillaria is part of the lily family, and its c. 100 members are distributed widely across the Northern Hemisphere (in a broadly similar pattern to its Lilium relatives). The genus occurs across a wide array of habitats and substrates, including a number of species/varieties (such as F. eastwoodiae and F. biflora subsp. ineziana) that inhabit the toxic soil environments associated with serpentine geology.
A degree of foolhardiness is an important attribute in gardeners. Without some sense of adventure, planting design can easily veer towards a generic middle ground, and we also miss out on the opportunities that an expansive approach offers (such as bolstering seasonal flowering).
Through trialling species in the experimental garden attached to our studio and observing other people’s experiments, we aim to continually expand our possibilities for planting design (as well as maintain material of plants that may become scarce or impossible to source).
Fritillaria conica is one of the most satisfying garden experiments of recent years, considering that smaller fritillaries are more frequently grown in pots than in the open garden. Although there are exceptions, we generally always aim to eventually trial species within the ground, as that provides us with genuinely relevant information for planting design.
The other reason for this is that it is just more interesting to determine how one can generate conditions that emulate the habitats in which these plants grow in the wild. In the case of Fritillaria conica, this involves thinking about vegetation types such as phrygana (an Eastern Mediterranean term for garrigue) and maquis – habitats that exhibit similarities to our native scrub.
Wild plant communities are not simply assemblages of plants. They are more akin to compositions, with a logic determined by the prevailing environmental conditions and the physiology of their constituents. Differing species seek out light, heat, water or refuge based on their particular requirements.
Striking a balance between providing adequate drainage and light, and relief from the searing heat of summer is important for the cultivation of many bulbs (including Fritillaria species). Taking this point further, one also needs to consider the fact that bulbs pull themselves deeper into the ground with time (in search of respite from summer heat).
Bearing all of this in mind, we have positioned Fritillaria conica amidst summer meadow grasses (from the genus Pentapogon), and in the afternoon shade of a dwarf Mediterranean shrub, Teucrium subspinosum. With the benefits of good drainage, winter light and a degree of summer relief, the plants that we originally purchased from Hokonui Alpines years ago have increased year on year.
In the wild, Fritillaria conica is restricted to the Peloponnese in southern Greece, where it grows on rocky, limestone hillsides. It is one of a number of yellow-flowered species (including Fritillaria bithynica, F. rhodia, F. forbesii and F. carica) that occur between southern Greece and Turkey.