Wednesday Weed – Crown Imperial

Crown Imperials (Fritillaria imperialis)

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?

Snakeshead fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris)

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.

Crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis)

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.

Photo Two by By Sahehco - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Wild Crown Imperial in Fars, Iran (Photo Two)

And here is another shot of wild crown imperials in Kurdistan. Goodness how I miss travelling….

Photo Three by By Khezriyani - Own work, CC0,

Crown imperials in Kurdistan (Photo Three)

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.

Photo One by Mark Williams from rom

Photo of blue tit under crown imperial by Mark Williams (Photo One)

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?

Photo Four by Hari Krishnan, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Fritillaria persica (Photo Four)

Or Fritillaria acmopelata, the Anatolian fritillary?

Photo Five by Zeynel Cebeci, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Fritillaria acmopetala, the Anatolian Fritillary (Photo Five)

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.

Photo Six by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Scarlet lily beetles (Lilioceris lilii) (Photo Six)

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?

Otherwise Known

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 Credits

Photo One by Mark Williams from rom

Photo Two By Sahehco – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three by By Khezriyani – Own work, CC0,

Photo Four by Hari Krishnan, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five by Zeynel Cebeci, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

2 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Crown Imperial

  1. Anne

    I have not seen any examples of the fritillary genus growing here and am interested to see them appearing in blogs from your part of the world. Legends surrounding plants are always fascinating to read – as is the etymology of plant names. As for the poem … I reread it a few times and came up sharply short each time I came to “I know. I know” ,,, why do we do that in the face of such knowledge? It is a recognised reaction to bad news. I have enjoyed this post.

  2. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    As you might expect, I always think of butterflies when I read the word ‘fritillary’ and I wondered why the same word was used for both them and flowers. I googled it and read that the “name comes from a Latin word, fritillus, which means chessboard or dice box” and the two got their names because of the chequered pattern. But I don’t see many spots or checquered patterns on many of these beauties… Confusing or what? Love the colour of those scarlet lily beetles though. 😊


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