by Erin Marissa Russell
Once you’ve seen a checkered lily flower’s geometric markings, it’s easy to tell where this stunning flower got its name. Marching lines of squares cover each bell-shaped bloom of the fritillaria meleagris, arranged like mosaic tile in an array of alternating shades. The checkerboard effect comes from the blossom’s high-contrast hues, which set a deep, velvety burgundy against pale, papery white. However, we’re betting most readers haven’t had the chance to see one of these beauties yet, at least not in person. That’s why you should learn to grow the checkered lily in your own flower garden this year. Although this bewitching perennial isn’t fussy when it comes to care, the checkered lily isn’t part of nearly enough gardens yet.
Perhaps that’s because fritillaria meleagris is native to Europe, where swaths of them carpet the flood plains and dot woodlands with color. The UK-based Royal Horticultural Society bestowed it with the Award of Garden Merit, which is an honor reserved for plants that perform reliably for gardeners. The checkered lily’s nodding, pendant-shaped blossoms, each about two inches tall, create a kaleidoscope effect when grouped thanks to their distinctive coloration and the checkerboard pattern on their petals. The beauty of this bloom, however, has a definite spooky edge.
Folklore traditions tie fritillaria meleagris to persecution, martyrdom of saints, the Sacred Heart of Christ, and to the Biblical character Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead. These associations may be due to the blood-red hue of its blooms. The Engish poet Vita Sackville-West gave the flower a fitting (and slightly macabre) description in her visually fueled botanical meditation Some Flowers, writing that “you can look right down into its depths, and see the queer semi-transparency of the strangely foreign, wine-colored chalice. It is a sinister little flower, sinister in its mournful colors of decay.”
However, it’s unlikely that decay will be the first thing you think of come midspring when you spy the checkered lily’s first blooms. Instead, you’ll be enchanted by the otherworldly fairytale feel this one-of-a-kind patterned flower can bring to your flowerbeds or containers. Fritillaria meleagris also makes an excellent choice for lawns or other grassy, naturalized areas if you’re looking for an untamed look. Because this hardy flower spreads easily from seed, in a natural setting it will proliferate and bring beauty year after year. Though it’s an aggressive multiplier, fear not, however—the checkered lily is not categorized as invasive.
Fritillaria meleagris blooms atop stems that grow 12 to 16 inches tall, with grassy, blade-shaped silver-green leaves spaced evenly along the slender stalk. In addition to the aforementioned burgundy and white, the checkered lily’s blossoms may also feature gray, tawny brown, or purple hues. A less common variety features white flowers with pale green patterns.
The checkered lily’s height makes it a dazzling choice to edge beds or line walkways. Even better, its delicate foliage doesn’t take up much space, leaving plenty of options (and space) for complementary or companion planting. If your soil has less than optimal drainage, this unique flower is an especially good choice, as it flourishes when supplied with plenty of moisture. Checkered lily even performs well under densely canopied trees—even black walnut trees— where other flowers may struggle due to deep shade and moist soil.
The checkered lily may be largely unknown in the U.S. simply because most American gardeners haven’t yet had the chance to experience the its charms. It’s time to change that right now. Read on to learn more about this showstopping flower—and you’ll find out why fritillaria meleagris is a smart pick to revitalize drab spots in flowerbeds, rock gardens, or flowerbed plots.
Varieties of Checkered Lily
The flower’s most common name, checkered lily, is interchangeable with its Latin botanical title, fritillaria meleagris. Guinea hen flower, checkerboard fritillary, and snake’s head fritillary are other common monikers for the checkered lily. In fact, this flower’s unique markings and shape clearly spark the imagination, as fritillaria meleagris has a litany of names based on its unusual appearance. These include chess flower, chequered daffodil, drooping tulip, frog cup, Lazarus bell, leper lily, meadow fritillary, widow’s wail, weeping widow, and sometimes solely the first word of the plant’s Latin name, fritillary. That said, not all fritillaria plants on the market are created equal, so there are a few more types you should know to avoid confusion or ending up with the wrong flower.
You’re likely to run across other fritillaria varieties because more than 200 exist. Another prevalent type is called fritillaria imperialis, with the nickname crown imperial. The Aurora and Rubra Maxima varieties showcase orange-red blossoms, and Lutea Maxima’s blooms are a sunny yellow. Fritillaria imperialis is a completely separate flower from fritillaria meleagris—one that’s vibrant and impressive in its own right. The two share a family resemblance when it comes to bloom shape and plant structure. Don’t confuse your meleagris with your imperialis, though—or the seeds you nurtured so attentively might open to reveal different blossoms than you looked forward to. Due to its skunklike odor, fritillaria imperialis isn’t a favorite for floral arrangements, despite its striking good looks.
The other widely cultivated fritillaria plant, fritillaria persica, is an unexpected garden addition known for its hues, which range from a warm chocolate brown to purple so dark it‘s almost black. This sophisticated fritillary crams up to 20 blossoms on each of its silvery stems, stacking them vertically on the stalk in the style of hollyhocks or gladiolus. Whichever fritillary you’re looking for, check online or catalog listings (or, in a nursery, the fine print on the seed packet or tag) to ensure you end up with the specimen you’re seeking. You can peruse the more than 200 types of fritillary flowers that exist at The Fritillaria Group site from the Alpine Garden Society.
Growing Conditions for Checkered Lily
In addition to its home in the UK, fritillaria meleagris will perform well in USDA zones three through eight. This easy-care lily is appropriate for containers or in spots ranging from full sun to half sun/half shade to full shade. However, it prefers shady areas dappled with sunlight or high, open shade, such as areas underneath trees. Select your location carefully, as the checkered lily doesn’t like to be moved once it’s planted, so bulbs should remain undisturbed if possible.
The soil where you’ll plant fritillaria meleagris should be loosened before you place the bulbs. Choose average, moist soil that’s loamy—or you can make your soil more to the checkered lily’s liking by adding upgraded black peat to the mix. Lots of organic matter will help your lilies to thrive, so you can add plenty of compost to the plot where they’ll grow if the soil isn’t already a deep, rich black. Mulch can be left on throughout the growing season if you like.
Don’t be too concerned with drainage. This flower loves moisture year-round and will happily drink up the water rain leaves in poorly draining areas. If you’re planting fritillaria melagris on a lawn or in another naturalized setting, you can rake off cut grass before you plant your bulbs to prevent the grass from competing too stiffly with your flowers.
Expect blooms in mid to late spring (around April), at the same time as daffodils and just before lily of the valley. Companion planting with annuals between the bulbs is recommended if you wish to avoid the bare spot left behind when the lilies go dormant.
How To Plant Checkered Lily
Plant your bulbs in early fall, and time your order carefully. You’ll want to get those bulbs in the ground as soon as they arrive to prevent them drying out or becoming moldy. Some bulbs may arrive with discoloration or spongy texture, but this is normal. The only cause for concern is if you receive bulbs that are so dry they’re powdery.
Plant in prepared soil at five inches deep, with 16 bulbs per square foot (or four to six inches between bulbs). You may choose to crowd the bulbs more closely if you’re going for a clustered look or when using containers. In this case, maintain the five-inch depth, but put no more than an inch between the bulbs. Whichever layout you choose, water well after planting.
Care for Checkered Lily
We’ve mentioned how much fritillaria meleagris loves moisture. Give these lilies what they love by keeping soil consistently moist. Don’t let off on hydration when plants go dormant, either. The soil should not be allowed to dry out regardless of the season.
The checkered lily’s foliage will begin to die back when the plants start going dormant in late spring. Allow this to happen naturally, and do not remove the foliage, as it will nourish the bulbs and encourage them to return next season. Let your plants set seed before mowing them, if desired, in late July. When you care for fritillaria meleagris well, it will multiply in number and come back year after year.
In fall when the bulbs are dormant, checkered lilies can be propagated by division. Every few years, dig up the bulbs and look them over to ensure their health. If extra bulbs have formed, carefully separate them. Replant the original bulbs as quickly as you can, and move newly propagated bulbs into the garden soil or container where they’ll stay. You can also harvest the tiny bulblets that form between the leaves of fritillaria melagris, but wait as long as possible to separate these bulblets from the stem and transplant them. Remember to choose your location carefully, as checkered lily thrives when it isn’t disturbed.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Checkered Lily
One perk of the checkered lily is that it’s not plagued by pests and disease. The plants are resistant to deer and squirrels, and the slightly skunky odor the bulbs give off even repels field mice. Lily beetles are the only hazard you’ll need to keep an eye out for. Remove the beetles or larva by hand (wearing your gardening gloves , of course).
Videos About Checkered Lily
Scanning through for the basics? This intro to growing checkered lilies covers the highlights in just a minute and 25 seconds:
Whether you want to get the most bang for your metaphorical buck or are looking for tips on how to amp up the production of gorgeous blooms on checkered lilies you’re already tending, this video uses a troubleshooting approach to help you make the most of each bulb in your plot:
If you haven’t been lucky enough to witness the majesty of fritillaria meleagris in person (or if you just want a detailed visual reference), this short clip provides a nice view of a stand of checkerboard lily plants: