Well Readers, there are some plants that are not meant to be ignored, and crown imperials are right up there at the head of the group. Look at those extraordinary blooms! The plant looks as if it’s wearing a spiky hat for a start, and then there are those Dundee United coloured flowers. Who would ever guess that the plant is a close relative of the delicate little snakeshead fritillaries in my garden?
Another puzzle for me is the location where I found the crown imperials – right next to a pond in Golders Hill Park. The Royal Horticultural Society website says that the plant doesn’t like damp or heavy clay soil, requires full sun, and the bulb is prone to rotting, so this not an ideal site. Apparently the plant might flower like a good ‘un in its first year, but will then have an attack of the vapours and refuse to produce anything interesting for the rest of its life. Let’s hope that plans are afoot to look after these lovelies once they’ve flowered.
The plant comes originally from a broad swathe of land, starting with the Anatolian plateau in the west and ending up in the foothills of the Himalayas.However, it has apparently naturalised itself in Austria, Sicily, and Washington state in the US. I found it difficult to imagine this flower growing in the wild so here’s a lovely panoramic shot of wild crown imperial in Fars, Iran.
And here is another shot of wild crown imperials in Kurdistan. Goodness how I miss travelling….
The flowers, which can be red, orange or yellow, apparently have a strongly foxy odour, which deters mice and other creatures who might otherwise eat the bulbs and flowers.
But here’s a thing! Apparently the flowers are pollinated by blue tits, a most unusual thing in the northern hemisphere where we don’t have hummingbirds or sunbirds to rely on. This was apparently featured in this week’s ‘Gardener’s World’ for those of you in the UK. For a more science-y view, here’s an article from New Scientist which explains that crown imperials produce a special kind of nectar, containing sucrose, which is specifically adapted to birds. Blue tits are the only birds who are light enough, and dextrous enough, to access the flowers without doing them any damage, though other species do destroy the flower to get at the sweet stuff.
Apparently, the nectar is so copious that it trickles out of the flower if you give it a tap, and therein hides a legend. Apparently, the crown imperial was once pure white, but when Jesus passed by in the Garden of Gethsemene it refused to bow its head like all the other plants. When Jesus reprimanded the plant, it blushed in shame and cried, hence the colour of the flowers and the ‘tears’.
I must say that I am becoming fascinated with the fritillary genus. While the crown imperial doesn’t particularly appeal to me, some of the others certainly do. How about Fritillaria persica, the Persian Lily, which comes in black or white?
Or Fritillaria acmopelata, the Anatolian fritillary?
It’s always useful to remember that all these plants are members of the Lily family, however, and to keep an eye open for those bright maraunders, the lily beetles, adorable-looking as they are.
To get back to the crown imperial, however: its bulb is poisonous, but apparently can be eaten when cooked. I suspect you’d be much better off with an onion, and that would be cheaper, too.
And finally, a rather enigmatic poem. What do you think, Readers?
by Diana Brodie
My room feels crowded, stuffy,
and I open windows wide.
The tallest officer stands close
as he stares out at my garden.
He asks the names of flowers
and trees: Sophora, walnut,
sweet chestnut. He points
to the flame-coloured flowers
pressed against the wall –
Fritillaria imperialis, I reply,
otherwise known as crown imperials.
It seems someone has died, alone,
whose name I have never heard.
And in another continent.
I do not know, I say.
No relative of mine.
I hope you trace his family,
he had a sister, did you say?
They thank me for my time, drive off.
Left on my own, I know. I know.
I pick up the phone, call them,
tell them that I know. I know.
Photo One by Mark Williams from romhttps://kensingtongardensandhydeparkbirds.blogspot.com/2020/08/it-was-another-hot-day-but-spell-is.html
Photo Two By Sahehco – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26320080
Photo Three by By Khezriyani – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40594934
Photo Four by Hari Krishnan, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Five by Zeynel Cebeci, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Six by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons