The worst thing I ever did was destroy my love letters. It was years ago [...]
Imperial SplendourCreated by Verity in Being You, Home and Garden
Gardens have timescales quite different from ours. Owners depart, ampoule and new people move in, viagra and unless they indulge in wholescale upheaval, bringing in diggers, landscapers and garden designers, the garden merely shrugs and carries on.
My immediate predecessors were no gardeners. Well perhaps that’s unfair. They liked daffodils, hybrid tea roses and screening conifers, but otherwise seemed to do little. Yet certain flowers, planted by some owner goodness knows how far back, just carried on doing their thing. What did nature care who nominally owned the patch? It was the plants’ territory now.
That first spring I was intrigued by a large clump of shiny leaves pushing through the soil in February. Growing fast to three foot tall, in mid-March they flowered. What a thrill, for they were Crown Imperial fritillaries, one of our oldest garden plants.
Fritillaria imperialis grows wild in Iran and Afghanistan, and was introduced to Europe from Turkey, where it was a valued garden plant. Supposed to have got its name because it was grown for the first time in Europe in the Imperial Gardens of Vienna, bulbs of it were brought to this country, via Holland, in 1580. Such a spectacular plant must have been a highly prestigious thing to grow, but gradually moved down the social scale until it became a traditional cottage garden plant, hence I guess, the clump growing in the garden of my very un-grand cottage.
Mine were yellow, but there is also an orange flowered form. The flowers in both colours hang their bell-like heads, and peering up into them you see these extraordinary drops of pearly liquid, just hanging there as if about to fall. Except that, defying gravity, they never do. These curious ‘teardrops’ gave rise to a legend that the fritillary once grew in the Garden of Gethsemane. All the other flowers bowed their heads in sorrow, except for the fritillary, which was too proud of its green crown and beautiful, upright flowers. When gently reproved by its Creator, it bowed its head and has wept tears of remorse ever since.
There is however something rather un-imperial about this beautiful plant. It pongs. “A mixture of mangy fox, dirty dog-kennel, the small cats’ house at the zoo, and Exeter railway station”, one famous garden writer wrote in 1914. What did he have against poor Exeter? But he hadn’t finished. “Hunting folk enjoy this odour in their gardens”, he added waspishly. He is not alone in commenting that the plant has a foxy smell, but can’t say I’ve ever noticed, so the odour can’t be that strong. It was just a treat to enjoy the spectacle of this showy plant so early in the year.
That’s the past tense I’m using. Because in the last few years the clump has got smaller and smaller. True, we’ve suffered droughts. And a few wet summers, which the bulbs won’t have liked. But then they must have been growing there for the best part of a century, and so taken such things in their stride. What is new though is the accursed lily beetle. Fritillaries are part of the lily family, and I now know to look for the little red pest on my dwindling colony, and despatch them swiftly.
Fritillaria imperialis is reputedly hard to get established, the big, hollow bulbs needing to be planted in the autumn, in a well-drained, limey soil. On their sides, to combat rot. So if my old clump disappears should I try and replace them? Oh yes, I think so. For the sake of future owners.
© Alex Pankhurst