Checkered lilies (Fritillaria meleagris) are intriguing. Up close, their small maroon-and-white-checkered bells have inspired many common names, including snake’s head, chess flower, Lazarus bell (a reference to the bell to wake the dead) and leper’s lily, for the bell used in olden days to warn the healthy away from the diseased.
Another common name is guinea hen flower. (Meleagris means “spotted like a guinea fowl.”) That reference is easy to understand if you have ever seen a pearl, silver or lavender-spotted guinea hen.
Both the fritillaria blossoms and the birds are described as tessalated, a word that comes from the Italian word tessera, meaning a small tile or bit of glass of the type used in mosaics.
Fritillaria meleagris, like most fritillaria, are usually deer- and rodent-proof, and can naturalize in hospitable settings. Cool, moist, pH-neutral soil and filtered sunlight meet the needs of checkered lilies.
Other fritillaria enjoy more sunlight. Follow the instructions that come with your bulbs, but typically, you should plant bulbs three to four times deeper than the size of the bulb. The soil should be rich in humus and nutrients and well-draining, although it also needs to retain some moisture. Incorporate plenty of leaf mold, peat moss or well-rotted compost before planting.
In a rock-garden setting or woodland drift, the white blossoms of Frillaria alba are easy to see from a distance. But close up, the purple-to-maroon checked blossoms of F. meleagris are always a happy surprise. The diminutive checkered lily is also a good choice for forcing indoors, where you might have more opportunity to enjoy its delicate beauty.
The natural environs of checkered lilies includes all of California, Oregon, Idaho, Washington and western Canada. Fritillaria affinis ‘Wayne Roderick’ was originally found and named in nearby Point Reyes.
While the subtle blossoms of the checkered lily rarely reach more than 6 to 12 inches in height, other fritillaria varieties are bigger and bolder.
The bulb experts at John Scheepers, the mail-order nursery, shared their beautiful photos and talked about some of their favorite frillaria:
Fritillaria persica can reach 30 inches in height. This variety has dramatic pendant bell-shaped flowers in a rich plum color with wavy blue-green foliage. Beautiful in drifts and striking in clusters of three or more, purple F. persica makes a striking display by itself and is beautiful interplanted with the creamy white bells of F. persica alba.
Fritillaria imperialis rubra maxima often reaches 36 inches in height. The brilliant burnt- orange blossoms appear in April and May, with up to 10 bells per stalks. For yellow blossoms, consider F. imperialis lutea maxima. It has gorgeous yellow pendant bell blossoms on 36-inch plants.
Fritillaria michailovskyi, a smaller member of this group, is no less striking. It was first identified in 1905, and is a native of Turkey. Its five-petal bells are yellowish-purple to chocolate brown and have shiny yellow interiors. They look like they should be nodding outside a pixie’s abode or in a magic forest. It does well in rock gardens and pots or naturalized in a woodsy section of your garden. Make sure pots of bulbs are never allowed to dry out.
If you cannot find the fritillaria of your choice locally, you can order them online from John Scheepers for planting now. Fritillaria bulbs do not like being out of the ground. Plant them as quickly as possible and water well.
Over time, fritillaria bulbs form bulblets around the main bulb. You can propagate new plants every few years by separating these bulblets from the mother bulb and planting them.
Pacific Horticulture magazine (pacifichorticulture.org/articles/fritillaria-and-the-pacific-garden/) has an extensive article on the more than 100 fritillaria varieties found along the Pacific Coast and in the Pacific Northwest. Author Jane McGary said she feels strongly that these plants are underappreciated and underused in our gardens. She shares seed sources, instructions and encouragement for starting fritillaria from seed (a four to five-year project from seed to blossom), a process she recommends for gardeners who want to expand their collections beyond what is commercially available.
Workshop: Napa County Master Gardeners will lead a workshop on “Winterizing Your Garden” on Saturday, Nov. 1, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., at UC Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Ave., Napa. Learn the importance of winterizing and receive a checklist guide.