As extravagantly showy as lilies, crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis) bloom months earlier and look more like extravagant parrots than plants. You'd never guess these imposing fritillaria are kin to the modest little checkered lily, but they're actually much easier to grow than their shy cousin. Native to Afghanistan, Iran Pakistan and into the Himalayan foothills, crown imperials have been grown in gardens for centuries - I like thinking that the moguls were as enchanted with these flowers as I am....
Plant bulbs of crown imperial in autumn in a well-drained, sunny spot (I grow them in feed troughs and raised beds) and in spring you'll be amazed when a dark stalk shoots up 2-3 feet high. The cluster of large, drooping bell-shaped flowers near the top of the stalk are topped off with a frill of leaves that supposedly resemble a crown, hence the royal name. This ruffled topknot is echoed by a similar leafy ruff toward the bottom of the stalk, giving these show-boaters pleasing solidity and symmetry.
Crown imperials are deer and mole resistant due to their slight musty odor which repels predators; in truth, I haven't noticed it, because I've never had the nerve to cut one of these beauties to bring indoors. They bloom over several weeks; after flowering, let the stalk wither down, cut it off at the base when the leaves and stalk have turned yellow, let the bulb rest in the ground, and next spring you'll have even more of these show-stopping flowers blooming in your garden for Easter.
Spirea 'Magic Carpet' is at its colorful best at the same spring moment when the crown imperials bloom; bulb and shrub complement each other beautifully.
Really, doesn't this look like a tropical bird or some other exotic creature that just happened to land in the garden, rather than something that grew from a little brown lump of bulb I planted last fall?