I got the lovely whiff of distant skunk as I passed by fritillary bulbs at my friendly neighborhood garden center and was, of course, drawn back to them as by a magnet.
The smell of the great crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis) is present in the bulbs, stems, leaves and flowers and I find it fully agreeable, though admittedly different from my favorite floral scents of lily of the valley, plumed pinks, alba and damask roses and certain camellias of the sasanqua group.
In any case, you don't get the fritillary smell unless you get close -- like the stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) the reputation for skunk is much exaggerated and, most likely, you will find it as agreeable as I do.
The crown imperial has large bulbs, about the size of an orange, rather soft and easily bruised. It should be planted the instant you get the bulb if not sooner and certainly by the end of September.
A great stout stem emerges while frost is still about, and I suppose it blooms here about April 15, with daffodils, lasting into the dogwood, azalea and main tulip season later that month. The flowers consist of several nodding bells, surmounted at the very top of the stem, by a tuft of bright green leaves.
The flowers are tawny red, or tawny orange, or clear yellow, depending on the variety. I got three red ones and three yellows. They were three bulbs for $6, which as things go nowadays is a good price.
Of course they haven't bloomed and, even if they do bloom this next spring, they haven't settled in. Fritillaries as a group are miffy, and some people grow them like weeds while others have trouble. They require good drainage, as virtually all bulbs do, and they do not like being disturbed. If mine do well, I shall not touch them ever again, until the clumps (I am probably dreaming) get so congested they no longer bloom well. Then I shall dig them up in July and plant them back in a new spot immediately, covering them with four or five inches of soil.
They come from Persia or thereabouts and do not mind baking in summer when they are dormant, though like many bulbs from dry places they take any amount of water when in growth, and do not object to our wet winters, either. They are said to like a sandy soil on the limy side, but they will grow in well-drained clay that cracks open in summer.
If you lift up a flower (or crawl under it and peer up) you will see five drops of nectar, like pearls, and these are always present in the bloom, so that even if you shake it vigorously it does not drop off. Very curious and very pleasant.
Possibly the first time the crown imperial was grown in western gardens was in 1576 when bulbs were sent to Vienna, but within 50 years the flower was sufficiently familiar in England that most gardeners had seen it and many had grown it.
It was one of the most esteemed of all flowers then, though it fell from popular favor in the last century, when it was grown (according to Louise Beebe Wilder, a great friend of the fritillary and now with God) chiefly by humble gardeners in cottages -- the sort of garden that had fat deep soil, where madonna lilies also flourished.
It is not a plant useful for mass display. It demands being looked at as an individual or in a small clump. It is no good for cutting, either. You just go out there and admire it. There is a period (as there is with lilies and colchicums) toward the end of June and early July, in which the old flower stem matures and withers and decays, and it is not ornamental then, but as with other bulbous plants you must leave the stem strictly alone until it withers. Any absurd efforts to tidy things up by removing the stem as soon as the flowers fade will result, within a year or two, in the death of the plant, so leave it strictly alone.
The flower stem reaches 3 or even 4 feet and does not require staking but supports itself admirably through spring storms.
This is the handsomest of the tall fritillaries, a group in which there are perhaps several dozen kinds, rarely offered for sale, and many of them quite difficult to grow. The great crown imperial is often easy, as easy as a tulip, but you never know. It can sometimes fail for no discernible reason.
Another fritillary, the only other one commonly sold for fall planting by bulb dealers, is the checkered lily or guinea hen flower (F. meleagris), which has nodding flowers, one or two to the stem, about a foot high. It too can be fickle. Of a goodly patch of bulbs I planted 10 years ago only one bloomed after the first year, but that one still comes up and blooms every spring in the shade of a large pin oak. It does not increase and it does not die.
Other gardeners may find it extremely easy, and sometimes the plant seeds itself about in grass that is not cut. Not with me, not here nor in my former garden, where out of 50 bulbs planted in what I thought was a perfect place not one survived after the first year.
It is well known (see Matthew Arnold's poetry) that the meadows of Christ Church, Oxford, are full of this fritillary. I have twice examined the meadow and see nothing remarkable about it, just a nice meadow with cows in it, but the fritillaries like it. If I were sensible, I'd get a lot of bulbs, plant them in small clumps of about five bulbs, in 10 places about the garden. Some would probably settle in. Considering how optimistic gardeners always are, it is surprising how often we shout failure from the rooftops when we have not given a plant a real trial.
The crown imperial and the checkered lily both (I grew up calling the latter a toad lily, in honor of its fascinating but subdued coloring and patterning) take full sun or light shade. I hope the big fritillaries grow and that for many years hence I shall be able to greet with annual complacency the faint nice scent of skunk.