Though beautiful to behold, you'll likely want to hold your nose when you're around crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis), whose skunky scent has earned it another common name: stink lily.
Thankfully, crown imperial is the only one of more than 100 fritillaries to emit the foul odour. However, some gardeners are willing to overlook this “flaw” because crown imperial also has the largest and most showy flowers. It produces foliage-capped clusters of nodding blooms in red, yellow or orange. One of the best known and earliest fritillary bulbs to be cultivated, crown imperial can grow a metre tall or more. The pungent smell may turn off some gardeners, but others appreciate a plant that will deter animals such as rabbits, deer and squirrels, which frequently eat bulbs.
Found in woodlands, meadows and high rocky ranges in temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, fritillaries belong to the lily (Liliaceae) family. They have a reputation for being difficult, but common varieties thrive with minimal care, as long as they're planted in the right location in specially prepared soil.
Be they tubular, bell or saucer-shaped, the flowers of most species are either pendulous and solitary, or bloom in clusters or umbels. Flowering from spring to midsummer, fritillary bulbs are fragile and should be handled with care. They often come dipped in wax (which does not need to be removed) from growers and/or packaged in wood shavings or rich peat moss for protection.
According to Carol Cowan of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Centre, fritillary bulb sales are growing each year. “As gardeners become more confident and start looking for more unusual bulbs, fritillaries, like alliums, are becoming more popular. Canada imported between 700,000 and 800,000 fritillary bulbs from Holland last year,” says Cowan.