Pronounced “frit-ah-LAIR-ee-uh,” this bulbous herb is a member of the Liliaceae family.
With about 100 species, Fritillarias are among the oldest cultivated plant materials. They have delicate, boxy, pendant blooms and stems that range in height from 20-90cm.
Fritillarias are native to temperate regions of western North America, northern Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. In many places, including France, Slovenia and Romania, they are endangered and are rarely found in the wild, but they are common in cultivated gardens.
The genus name Fritillaria means “dice box,” describing the spotted markings on the dangling, boxlike flowers of the F. meleagris species. In addition to fritillary, checkered lily, guinea hen flower and snake’s head fritillary are common names for this species.
Fritillarias are sometimes associated with death, probably due to their scent. They are skunky smelling to attract flies, their pollinator. Other common names are deathbell, Madam Ugly, widow’s veil and drooping tulips. Another species, F. imperialis, is commonly known as crown imperial.
Christian lore says that Fritillarias refused to bow their heads at the Crucifixion but, in shame, have bowed them ever since. Even today, when a bloom is touched, it often drops a “tear,” or bead of moisture.
F. meleagris blossoms have interesting patterns and shapes. Most are checkered reddish-brown, purple, white and gray while some are green, red, orange, yellow and chocolate. F. imperialis flowers are solid-colored—yellow, red-orange or red.
Fritillarias are available from January through May from Dutch sources although January yields moderate availability. The flowers are most readily available from domestic sources during April and May. Most Fritillarias bloom during mid-spring.
When properly cared for, Fritillarias last for about seven to 10 days. As cut flowers, they are best used in spaces where people will not be close enough to smell the musky blossoms.