Last month, you would have noticed the pots of dainty snakeshead fritillary, their chequerboard petals bouncing gently in the breeze, but May is all about their imperious cousins, the crown imperial fritillary.
Fritillaria is a lovely family of flowers, related to the lily, and often (unfairly) overlooked for more commonly-available or better-known bulbs.
The crown imperial, fritillaria imperialis, sports long, thick chocolate-brown stems, topped with a whorl of deep orange, red-bronze or golden yellow cup-shaped blooms, sprouting a crown of grassy leaves like a flowery pineapple. Each bloom hangs down; tilt your head and you can see the creamy anthers inside. It’s also known as the foxtail or stink lily, as they can be a bit foxy-smelling. On the other hand, the smell deters deer and foxes from chewing them. You might want to plant this to the back of the border, though; its impressive shoulder-height stature looks better there anyway.
If you are a connoisseur of black flowers, then you may well have stumbled upon fritillaria persica, or Persian bells. Small bell-shaped flowers, in powdery plum-black, cluster like a delphinium or foxglove along very tall stems. As its common name suggests, because of its Middle Eastern origins it likes warm, dry conditions, with good drainage. Classy and elegant, the shadowy dark shade is more Victorian gothic novel than Halloween novelty.
Not black enough? See if you can track down the stylish fritillaria camschatcensis, from a Russian island far beyond Vladivostok. The flower looks like a tiny lily, dipped in darkest ink. Each petal has a graceful flare to it, tilting out at the end. You’ll need a moisture-retaining, humus-rich soil to help it thrive, but it doesn’t mind shade.
If you want something select and sophisticated, something your neighbours won’t have - and something far easier to care for, than its appearance might suggest – why not take a look at fritillaries?