Fritillaria meleagris

A million roadblocks stand between tulips and me. If they aren’t sabotaged by rodents, deer do them in. Tulips happen here, but sometimes it’s nice to grow a plant that doesn’t require dowsing with fermented salmon and rotten eggs, if you catch my drift. That’s why I turned to Fritillaria meleagris. They don’t have the same shock appeal, but they survive without strategic arms.

A Fritillaria meleagris in the garden isn’t going to stop traffic, but it is a subtly graceful thing. If it were in prep school, it would be in the Ralph Lauren league, with its natty checkered outfit and crisply pointed petals. And just like the designer ads, it would have an attitude, dangling saucily from its arched stem. But let’s get real — no matter how fetchingly you’re tricked out — deep maroon, downward facing flowers aren’t going to be doorbusters competing against lilacs, hyacinths and the like. Take them right out of that beauty pageant, I say. Instead, grow fritillarias indoors in the dead of winter.

No, I’m not delusional (yet). Fritillaria meleagris is a great forcer. Absolutely primo. But they certainly haven’t hit the supermarket circuit for that purpose. In fact, I might be one of the only folks in on this secret (leak alert). And I only discovered fritillaria’s forcibility by accident. Somehow, the ground froze before I could finish my bulb fanaticism this year (we’re talking 2,500 bulbs successfully inserted before seize up — but that’s another story). Not to be dissuaded in my derangement, I rounded up all the containers within reach and began potting. The refrigerator filled up with tulips and narcissus in no time (more about my frig follies in It was looking like the frits wouldn’t be left out in the cold.

Fortunately, that’s when I happened to get on the phone with Brent Heath and The Bulbmeister revealed that fritillarias prefer 50-60 degrees F for a few weeks, which sounded a lot like home to me this winter. So I gave it a try. I simply put my pots of fritillarias beside a cool window. It was a bingo.

The ballet has lasted a month already. At my elbow at the moment are curlicues of foliage shouldering dangling bells with checkerboard markings in various tints of cranberry. What blended right in with the understory in the garden sparkles in the windowsill. Since I’m short of space, I can give them only east-facing light, which is fine with them. I water them when they dry out (which is often), and I’m rewarded by jewel-like blossoms. But the best news? They don’t smell like skunks! That might not sound like something to turn cartwheels about, but when you’re related to a crown imperial (Fritillaria meleagris), people expect bad fumes to pour from your mouth. Well, Fritillaria meleagris does not offend. Not a little stinker. Not even remotely, not even slightly. Pure sophistication. In mid-February, it doesn’t get any better than this.

All photographs copyright Tovah Martin

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7 Responses to Fritillaria meleagris

  1. Lisa from PA says:

    Great article! I love the fact that you accidentally found out about forcing these bulbs. More pleasure can be found in gardening by accident! I don’t grow fritillaria’s but I do plant lots of bulbs. My favorite are alliums. I like the large “Globemaster” and the tiny “Drumstick”. In your pictures within the article, what is the small circular lime green plant behind the fritillaria? It would look nice in a planter. By the way, an article in the Akron Beacon Journal was picked up by my local paper here in Northeast Pennsylvania, and guess who the writer was quoting from her new book “The New Terrarium”? None other than you! Title of this article is “Ward off those green-thumb doldrums”. Other gardeners were interviewed and topics included planting a terrarium, seed your lawn (yes, you read that right!), start garden seeds, and do some weeding (in between snow storms!). It was 60 degrees here on Friday. Now it’s snowing so hard I can’t see out the window. Time to plant a terrarium! Lisa 🙂

    • Tovah Martin says:

      I’m right alongside you with the allium affection, Lisa. And the beauty of fritillarias is that they’re equally deer resistant. I noticed a little issue with my potted houseplant fritillarias this morning — I was trying to dry them off after blooming and they attracted aphids — which weren’t an issue in my windowsill garden before. That’s Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Efanthia’ behind it. Turned out to be a great houseplant. I find that some winters it survives better than others here. Would be great in a container. Have I got a surprise for you! — I just launched to help the readers here with terrarium planting, maintenance, etc. Enjoy!

  2. Lisa from PA says:

    Love the euphorbia. Great new website / blog! Added to my favorites~ Thanks~ Lisa 🙂

  3. Oh! Yay! I’m SO going to try that next year. My big super-easy forcing discovery for the year was that Iris reticulata doesn’t need a cold period either!

    • Tovah Martin says:

      Loved your blog, Joseph ( And thank YOU for the Iris reticulata advice. I tried some last year, but they were pre-chilled by Brent & Becky’s Bulbs. They worked like a charm. Did you keep yours in the refrigerator before you planted them? Stay tuned for the next blog = I rated some paperwhites for their fragrant factor. And you are going to love Seed Savers. Many of the members send recipes and letters with their seed packets. It adds another layer to vegetable gardening.

  4. Nope, no cold period — straight out of the packages from where I found them on clearance at the grocery store (of all places!) and into pots. I do keep my house on the cool side, though.
    And I have to say — I’m SO thrilled to read you liked my blog! You’re books were some of the very first I discovered when I was first getting into gardening, and have been a huge part of my growth as a gardener, and in my desire to write about gardening.

    • Tovah Martin says:

      Okay, Joseph — how cool is cool (I mean your house temperature)? Looks like we have lots in common — because mine is chilly also. But don’t you think that if people who live in “normal” homes put their bulbs close to the window, they can make the forcing magic happen? There’s nothing like those sky blue iris (I grew ‘Harmony’ I think) to welcome spring. You can’t imagine how much it means to me that my writing helped move you toward gardening. Now you’re passing it along. Check out Joseph’s blog at

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