We seem to be in the season known to gardeners as "false spring" right now - I was working in shirt-sleeves yesterday, but there was a thick frost on the ground this morning. Also, there are definite signs of spring - the daffodils are starting to come through, aren't they?
And there are some surprises in the garden as well - I took the above photo last week, it shows the nub of my first Fritillaria imperialis breaking the soil. The surprising thing is that, in other years, it's been mid to late March before they even appear. This week, the sprouts are well over 6" high (that's about 15cm for you youngsters) and they shouldn't even be up yet!
So what are they?
One of the most exotic early summer bulbs, that's what they are: great strong sturdy stems, wrapped in thick, luscious green leaves, then a length of clear stem, topped with a mad whorl of brightly-coloured dangling flowers round about May. They can get to waist height,, so they're quite impressive, and the flowers come in bright yellow, strong red and
various shades in between.
They look very exotic, but they are fairly easy to grow: they like full sun, but at the same time they're often recommended for woodland gardens - the trick seems to be to give them full sun early in the year, and to keep them fairly dry for the rest of the time, so light shade would be okay. Mine are in a rose bed with shrubs behind, but not overshadowing them, and they seem quite happy there.
They are big bulbs, but they don't like to be planted too deeply: they also don't like having damp bottoms - well, who does? - so the usual advice is to dig a deepish hole, fill the bottom of it with grit, then sit the bulbs on the grit at the right depth, and backfill with soil.
I have a metal plant support on mine, as you can see: partly this is for support, as mine are growing in amongst the roses and I don't want them to get tangled: and partly it's to remind me of where they are, so I don't accidentally hoe their tops off in early spring, or try to plant something else on top of them.
Their main problems are rot, due to waterlogging of the soil (hence the grit bed), and the dreaded Lily beetles, which can ruin them, so it's sensible to plant them in a position where you can get to them easily, without trampling other plants, in order to check them for Lily beetles every few days.
And in return, you get these fabulous, exotic, unusual, flowers!