Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Corona imperialis

This post is essentially a repeat of one made this morning on the PBS forum.
I’ve admitted to my failure with Fritillaria imperialis in the past, and it’s not simply Schadenfreude which now gives me pleasure when I consider that I am evidently in the distinguished company of some very accomplished growers.
How many of you know William Walsh's poem Rivals? It expresses well my feelings about my love affair with Fritillaria imperialis. Walsh died in 1708; here it is from the Oxford Book of English Verse, with the text slightly modified (and the meter massacred) to fit this topic:

Of all the torments, all the cares,
With which our lives are curst;
Of all the plagues a lover bears,
Sure rivals are the worst!
By partners in each other kind
Afflictions easier grow;
In love alone we hate to find
Companions of our woe.

Corona imperialis, for all the pangs you see
Are labouring in my breast,
I beg not you would favor me,
Would you but slight the rest!
How great soe'er your rigours are,
With them alone I'll cope;
I can endure my own despair,
But not another's hope.
My apologies to the memory of William Walsh, who probably would have known this plant as Corona imperialis.

Generally speaking, I think it’s a mistake to dwell too much on failures – I suspect that even the worst growers among us have enough imagination to fabricate explanations for the failures. Focus instead on successes – not that they are necessarily any easier to understand.
And I have a success to focus on. Sometime back in the early 70s I received a dozen bulbs of Fritillaria imperialis from a Dutch supplier; they were mailed directly to me from the Netherlands (not that that made a difference). I planted them here and there around the garden. As usual, all bloomed magnificently the first year. Several returned the second year without bloom. By the third year, only one remained. That plant was planted under a copper beech. Also, and don’t hold me to this, I vaguely remember dumping a full eighty pound bad of ground limestone or hydrated lime on that spot.
For the next ten or so years that one surviving plant reappeared but never bloomed. Then it began to bloom, and for about another ten years it bloomed yearly. It was eventually a huge plant, easily four feet high and with proportionately large flowers.
Then one summer I dumped a wheelbarrow load of something on the crown imperial site, and that was the end of it – it never reappeared, and when I dug down to look for the bulb there was nothing there. But it had survived for about twenty years, and that experience made me a believer.
I’ve noticed that when growing in the shade of deciduous trees, Fritillaria imperialis is one of those plants whose foliage expands noticeably as the trees leaf out. I take that as a hint that it is adapted to life in the shade of deciduous woody plants.
In a small little tended garden I know in the valley of Virginia (i.e.
between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Mountains) a plant of Fritillaria imperialis grew for years. The climate there differs little from the climate here: winters are of comparable severity (perhaps a bit colder
there) and summers are comparably hot and humid and sporadically wet. But there is one significant difference, and it’s readily observable to the experienced gardener. The garden flora there is a bit different because the soil there is full of lime. The garden in question is on old farmland, and the autochthon is by nature full of limestone.
Might something as simple as pH or readily available calcium be the answer to the culture of this plant? I put that hypothesis to the test last fall with a few bulbs of both Fritillaria imperialis and F. persica (and also F.pallidiflora, another species whose stature gives it potential value as a garden plant). I loaded the planting site with ground limestone. It’s too soon to tell now because they’ve just finished blooming, but in a few weeks I’ll be getting hints on their prognosis. These bulbs are in a spot exposed to sun for several hours during the middle of the day.
If this iteration of the experiment does not work, I’m game to try again next year in a site under deciduous trees. Also on the roster: trials in gypsum and in a non-acid forming sulfur source.
Several dozen other species of Fritillaria have proven to be manageable
here: you would think I might grow the crown imperial, too. I’m not ready to give up yet.
In the image at the top you see on the left Fritillaria imperialis and on the right Fritillaria persica as they appear in Parkinson's PARADISI IN SOLE Paradisus Terrestris of 1629.

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