Fritillaria imperialis is certainly no wallflower. This lily native to Asia pushes up a robust stem from its bulb, ringed with sword-shaped leaves in whorls. This vegetation is surmounted by an umbel of showy, nodding, bell-shaped flowers. And as if all that weren't enough, the umbel is "crowned" (thus the common name, "crown imperial") with spiky bracts, about 3-4 feet above ground level.
Since the flowers nod their heads down, it can be difficult to appreciate the inside of the "bell." That's too bad, because the inner markings are exquisite, including 6 round, shiny, brilliant-white dots near the base of each petal.
I grew Fritillaria imperialis 'Rubra', which, although listed as "red," I considered more of an orange. The bulb package also indicated that it would bloom in "late spring," whereas for me, even in chilly New England, it flowered in April.
Grow Fritillaria imperialis in planting zones 5-8. Tolerant of light shade in the South, crown imperial should be grown in full sun in the North. Planting time is fall; the more precise planting time depends on where you live. To determine the month for planting, based on your zone, see spring bulb plants.
As striking as Fritillaria imperialis is, this bulb plant presents its fair share of challenges to the grower who would like to have it around for more than one spring. Since I lost my own after the first year, apparently I failed to meet one or more of these challenges:
First of all, the soil needs to be well-drained (it is said to be especially critical that they not be subjected to excessive moisture while dormant in summer). Secondly, you should protect Fritillaria imperialis in winter with a layer of mulch. And thirdly, you'll have to fend off the red lily leaf beetle (Lilioceris lilii), lest it devour all the foliage.
If you can meet these challenges successfully, the only complaint you may have about crown imperial is that it stinks like skunk cabbage! Even this drawback, however, can be seen in a positive light, as some garden pests are repelled by the smell (for example, it is one of the deer-resistant bulbs).