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Crown Imperials: Royally smelly, but plant them anyway

“I would I had some flowers o’ the spring that might

Become your time of day The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds,

The flower-de-luce being one!”

— Perdita in William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” Act 4, Scene 4

Perdita is flirting with some young men at the village’s sheep-shearing festival in this passage, comparing their youthful charms to several spring-blooming flowers. Her list includes the Crown Imperial (Fritillaria imperialis), which was a recent import from the Middle East during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

I’m growing red and orange cultivars of Crown Imperial in The Bard’s Garden at Hanley Farm; they also come in yellow. This week, I took advantage of our accommodating fall weather to sneak a few more bulbs into the ground. The new Crown Imperials will take their place in the Winter’s Tale garden tableau among Perdita’s other “flowers o’ the spring” — daffodils, violets, primroses, oxlips, lilies and iris (“flower-de-luce”).

Crown Imperials are certainly striking. They grow to a stately 3 to 4 feet tall with narrow, wavy, pointed green leaves that add interest in the garden long after the flowers have faded, which is not the case with the foliage of many other kinds of ornamental bulb plants (tulips come to mind).

In the spring, a stalk appears from the foliage and grows tall and erect. A bright cluster of nodding, bell-shaped flowers emerge and bloom for 2-3 weeks, topped by a tuft of short green foliage that resembles the top of a pineapple — altogether quite an exotic show.

You may be wondering why Crown Imperials are not more commonly grown in the home garden, and the answer is they stink. On the other hand, the plant’s skunky smell repels deer and other bulb-nibbling pests.

Besides, we can’t all smell like roses, so I say gardeners should forgive the Crown Imperials for their royally funky odor and grow them because they look like something straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. They grow best in well-draining, sandy soils that are rich in organic matter and kept slightly moist. They like plenty of sunshine, although their blooms will suffer if springtime temperatures spike.

Before planting the bulbs this week, I used a garden fork to loosen the soil, and then I dug a hole for each bulb so the top of the bulb would be 5-6 inches deep. Rather than having a pointed top like many other spring bulbs, Crown Imperial bulbs have an indentation with the base of last year’s stem still attached, so it’s easy to see which end goes up.

Some gardeners recommend adding a bit of builder’s sand or fine gravel to the bottom of the planting hole for additional drainage. I added a mix of compost and a tablespoon of bone meal (to boost root development) to the bottom of the hole, placed the bulb in the hole, covered it with soil, watered thoroughly and mulched with rice straw.

Now I’ll be dreaming of those exquisite flowers until they bloom in late spring. In March, I’ll add some slow-releasing, balanced-NPK fertilizers to the bed. Once the flowers fade, I’ll cut off the stalk but leave the foliage intact to continue photosynthesizing and storing energy in the bulb.

Established Crown Imperial plants don’t like to be disturbed, and I’ve found they don’t produce many offsets for propagating. This is unfortunate because the bulbs are expensive, so perhaps I will be bold and try germinating some Crown Imperials from seed, which requires cold stratification. If successful, it will take as long as five years before the plants produce their first flowers. Ah, the anticipation!

Crown Imperials, like all fritillaries, are related to lilies (unless the fritillary being referred to is one of several so-named butterflies). Fritillary is such a fun word that I looked up its origin and learned that it comes from a Latin word for “dice box.” Fritillary butterflies and some fritillary flowers have a checkered pattern like a chessboard, so perhaps chess pieces were once kept in a similar kind of box.

What is for sure is that Fritillaria imperialis was a flower that captured Shakespeare’s imagination. Join me in planting some Crown Imperial bulbs this fall, and then sit back and imagine their colorful display next spring.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.

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