Horticulture Magazine

Fritillaries ‘Snakeshead’ Plant Care & Growing Tips

Fritillaria meleagris flowers

Fritillaries Overview

Official Plant NameFritillaries
Common Name(s)Crown Imperials, Snake’s Head
Plant TypeBulb / Perennial Flower
Native AreaEastern Europe
Hardiness RatingH5
ToxicityNone
FoliageDeciduous
FlowersNodding bowl / bell-shaped flowers
When To SowSeptember, October
Flowering MonthsApril, May
Sunlight

Preferred
Full Sun / Partial Shade

Exposure
Exposed or Sheltered

Size

Height
0.1 – 0.5M

Spread
0 – 0.1M

Bloom Time
April – May

Soil

Preferred
Chalk, loam, sand

Moisture
Well drained

pH
Any

If you’re looking for an attractive plant with an impressive CV, consider fritillaries.

Boasting lilting lantern-like flowers, fritillaries are closely related to lilies and have a long history of use in ornamental gardening and horticultural settings. They bring an undeniably exotic feel to any garden, and most varieties allude to oriental shapes and themes.

snakeshead flowers of various colours amongst long grass
Lazy, lilting lanterns

Though originally hailing from Asia, British gardeners have been familiar with fritillaries for several hundred years. Looking at the plant, it’s easy to see how they made a good first impression, and how they’ve endured centuries of evolving trends and fashions. Incorporating fritillaries into your garden is a way to bring genuine beauty, while giving a nod to their proud cultural and historical background.

In this guide we’ll cover everything you need to know to get fritillaries thriving in even the most humble of gardens.

What are Fritillaries?

Fritillaria meleagris is considered to be the type species of the fritillaria genus, which in non-jargon terms means that this is the variety most indicative of the appearance and characteristics of related plants.

In the image below, you can see the bowing stem of fritillaria meleagris – also called snake’s head -with its iconic flower resembling a bell or lantern. In most varieties the flowers are solitary, making them all the more visually impressive. The mottling on the petals offers visual interest distinct from other flowers with single-colour petals, and this subtle aspect can be used to great effect when designing flower beds.

purple Fritillaria meleagris close up
A striking snake’s head

Types of Fritillary

The Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHS) plant finder lists over 400 fritillaria varieties, meaning there are plenty to choose from! Below you’ll find a selection particularly well-suited to British gardens, as indicated by receipt of the RHS’ Award of Garden Merit.

Fritillaria meleagris, or snake’s head fritillary

We’ve introduced this variety already, so we’ll keep this brief. The delicate purple flowers of this variety capture the aesthetic and atmosphere you can expect from other varieties: The colour and petal pattern may change between varieties, but the bowing appearance and gentle confidence remains.

This variety enjoys full sun or partial shade and moist, well-drained soil. It isn’t fussy with aspect, exposure, soil type, or soil acidity.

Fritillaria pallidiflora, or Siberian fritillary

This variety boasts snow-white flowers, bunched together a bit more tightly than the meleagris, hinting at the varied aesthetics centred on the common fritillary theme. White flowers are an ever-popular feature in flower beds and plant displays, meaning the Siberian should be right at home in many contexts.

The preferred growing conditions are the same as those for Fritillaria meleagris.

Fritillaria imperialis, or crown imperial

Tussles of orangey flowers hanging below a crown of green prickles almost bring to mind a pineapple, which isn’t something that can be said about many flowers. For this reason, Fritillaria imperialis makes a quirky and striking contribution to any outdoor space, especially if you’re riffing on exotic themes.

The crown imperial like full sun and well-drained soil, alluding to the different conditions preferred between Fritillaria varieties.

Fritillaria acmopetala, or pointed-petal fritillary

The whit petal frond framing a brownish purple central section almost resembles a negative photo of a model boasting a 1960s haircut. Almost, if you squint. However you perceive the form and colour of this flower, though, you can’t deny that it makes an attractive addition to any flower arrangement with whites, browns, oranges, or yellow.

flowers of pointed petal fritillary
Nice haircut

This variety shares growing preferences with the crown imperial.

Why grow them?

This plant is a sure-fire way to bring elegance and charm to your garden. A wide colour palette means they can complement a range of planned or existing areas, and most varieties are fairly easy to grow. To us, those sound like pretty compelling reasons to grow fritillaries!

How to grow Fritillaries

Preferred growing conditions vary across the different types of fritillaria, so make sure to check the specific requirements of the variety you’re planning to grow. The information in the following sections is given as a general guide.

Where to grow your plant

In the varieties introduced above, we saw that some (snake’s head and Siberian) can make do with partial shade or moist soil, while others (crown imperial and pointed-petal) require full sunlight and well-drained soil.

For this reason, you’ll need to research the preferences of the varieties you’re planning to plant to ensure that each can thrive.

In general, fritillaries are less fussy with soil type and pH than exposure, aspect, moisture levels, and hardiness. On the last point, hardiness ratings in the varieties above range from H4 (suitable to temperatures of around -10 degrees) to H7 (suitable below minus 20). So, if you live in particularly cold parts of the UK, double-check that your planned fritillary can handle the expected temperatures.

How to plant

You’ll want to plant your fritillary bulbs about 30cm below the soil surface, in September or October. The general rule when planting bulbs is to plant them with the tip facing up or, if it’s unclear which bit is the tip, plant them on their sides. They’ll struggle to grow if planted tip-down.

Fertilising

You can feed fritillaries each spring, with a fertiliser that releases nutrients slowly – potash is one option. Avoid using fertilisers high in nitrogen, as this carries the risk of encouraging surrounding grasses to grow, rather than your flowers.

Watering

Water well after planting your bulbs, as moist soil conditions will encourage healthy growth. Fritillaries don’t need too much watering when in bloom – just be vigilant during especially dry periods.

Pruning

You don’t need to prune any variety of fritillaries – hallelujah! We told you they were easy to grow.

Propagating

Your plants will produce ‘offsets’ each year, which are baby bulbs. You can dig these up by carefully separating them from the parent bulb. Either plant the offset elsewhere, leaving enough space between plants to avoid overcrowding, or give them to a friend to spread the fritillary love.

Troubleshooting Fritillary problems

This flower isn’t prone to any nasty plant diseases, which is another tick in the ‘easy to grow’ box. Aside from a few sneaky pests who may try to feast on their alluring petals and stems, fritillaries most likely won’t encounter many problems.

Slugs and snails

It feels like we write a slugs and snails section in almost every plant care & growing guide we publish. These guys are relentless, and their quest to feast on your lovingly-tended flowers is unceasing. But thankfully, there are a few ways to keep them at bay.

First up are the humane options, which we prefer. Scattering cuttings of scented plants near the roots of plants you want to protect can deter slimy visitors. Examples include rosemary, fennel, anise, and astrantia. You can also erect a physical barrier around your plant, using chicken wire or some other material with holes too small for them to crawl through.

You can also scatter coffee grounds, gravel, or other irritants near the base of your plant. Slugs and snails will struggle to move across these surfaces, often opting to go elsewhere instead.

And if you’re not having much luck with these options, beer traps are an effective but slightly less humane option. Simply bury halved milk bottles filled with beer in the soil near your flowers: Slugs and snails will be overwhelmed by curiosity and, when trying to get to the sweet-smelling liquid, will drown in it instead…

Lily beetles

Fritillaries are also prone to lily beetles, because of their similarity to the flower. These pests lay their eggs on leaf undersides, which then hatch, releasing lots of hungry larvae to feast upon leaves, leaving a trail of unsightly excrement in their wake.

The first step is to remove beetles and their eggs by hand, before they hatch and begin to wreak havoc. You can also encourage wildlife to visit your garden, which will eat the beetles and keep their populations in check.

Various pesticides exist, too, if you’re not seeing results from the methods above.

Fun with Fritillaries

Thanks for reading our guide to growing and caring for fritillaries in your garden. By now, you should have the information you need to decide whether this flower is right for you, and, if so, how to get one thriving in your garden.

The elegant and exotic air these flowers contribute to an outdoor space really is something to behold. Whether grown and displayed alone or alongside a medley of other plants, fritillaries will hold their own visually. The range of colours and nuanced appearances available between varieties gives you a huge number of options, too.

Make sure to check the exact conditions favoured by the variety you choose, because unlike some other plants, there’s a fair amount of variation between different types. You don’t want to stifle your plant’s growth by mistakenly growing it in the wrong conditions.

Get that right, however, and growing fritillaries in your garden should be fairly plain sailing. These unfussy and attractive plants are a pleasure to grow, and will delight anyone who steps foot in your garden.

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