Plant of the Month – March

This is the first day of rain for about 3 weeks so up until now there’s been no skulking in the kitchen and therefore no blog – apologies. It has also been so difficult to choose one plant as this year we are having a proper Spring at the right time; not too early, not too late, just right in fact, fairy tales all round.
After much huffing and puffing I’ve plumped for Fritillaria imperialis, the Crown Imperial. In a largely herbaceous garden such as this one, you can sometimes lack height in the borders especially early in the season when most other gardens are relying on flowering trees and shrubs. We have flowering trees such as magnolias and cherries but we miss out the middle layer and a 3 foot tall fritillary is useful to fill that visual gap.
It has a reputation for being difficult and tricksy but if you follow the rules this is one of those plants that actually seem to obey and behave. Sun, food and decent drainage. I first saw them growing in Lincolnshire in a small village outside Spalding (if they can’t get bulbs to grow there we may as well all give up). They were in a border about a foot wide, in front of a wall with grass between them and the road. They were a glorious column standing to attention, yellow ones. I couldn’t tell you what the house was like as your eye was held by the flowers – that was probably the aim, to distract you from the ’50s bungalow behind. But there they were, full sun, manure piled around them and on free draining Lincolnshire peat.
My next encounter was less fortunate. My father bought bulbs. Planted them. Fed them. Talked to them. Wept and wrung his hands over them. All he got were leaves. Too little sun as they were planted next to Great Granny’s peonies in the shade of the shed and a 10 foot wall. He finally got a flower, then a fox or cat bumbled past and broke the stem. More tears. I think that was when he took up water pistol practice.
Here, they are in the circle bed in the Paddock. We devote the bed to small treasures that would get lost in the main garden, it’s a kind of flat rock garden, and without the rocks! At the moment the bed is a riot of colour that justifies its alternative name of the jewel box border. In fact it’s such a riot that we have to do some editing. So immediately after flowering we will lift and divide the primroses and cowslips in there, take out half the muscari that have infiltrated and cut the hellebore flowers off as we don’t want them seeding. Then, there’ll be a sprinkling of feed and a new layer of bark.
Crown imperials do have one failing: they pong something ‘orrible. In one garden I know where latin is not widely adopted, they are called ‘The Smellies’ and everyone knows what is being discussed. If you order the bulbs, have their bed ready and waiting, you really don’t want them hanging around in the potting shed. Even if you disturb them in the ground the smell will come up from the depths and stain the air.
Not quite such a happy ending. . .

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