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Crown Imperial

October 16, 2013

I came home from work this morning to find a package left on my doorstep. The box, left by the mail carrier, was stamped with these red lettered instructions: “open immediately.” So, with curiosity, I did—to find three heirloom crown imperial bulbs nestled in the classified section of an Ann Arbor newspaper.

“Happy birthday, either very early or very late,” said the accompanying note from my sister. Whichever way, the gift was just in time for the fall planting season. Like crocus and tulip and daffodil bulbs, the spectacular crown imperial is planted in fall for spring bloom.

The crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis) is a member of the lily family and can grow to a height of four feet. Its lance-shaped leaves are glossy and grow at intervals along the stem with a swirl of bell-shaped downward facing orange flowers at the top that is further capped by a crown of leaves that look a little like the top of a pineapple. (They look like something Dr. Suess would have loved.)

The flower has a captivating history, too. A native to Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan, it was introduced to Europe in the 16th century by Carolus Clusius, the Flemish botanist who also started the “tulipomania” of 16th century Holland. Clusius called it the “Persian lily.”Another common name is “tears of Mary”—named for the drops of nectar that appear at the base of each petal. According to plant hunter Tom Hart Dyke, the name refers to a Christian legend which says that of all the flowers, only the haughty crown imperial refused to bow its head at the crucifixion and has wept ever since. Turkish lore has it that the flower grew in Eden with its petals upright. Because all the other flowers revered it, it grew arrogant, so God punished it, making the flowers droop in shame.

Folklore aside, the crown imperial was brought to America by the early colonists, and has been established in yellow and red shades as well as orange. It has a distinctly musky scent that is said to deter rodents and deer.

I have always been fascinated by bulbs, and first became interested in the crown imperial after buying a plate decorated with the flower. I didn’t know what it was until I located a photo of it in the National Garden Book. Then I read about poet Emily Dickinson’s love of the flower in the book “The Gardens of Emily Dickinson,” by Judith Farr. That settled it—I wanted to grow them, too.

Dickinson was a self-described “lunatic on bulbs” whose devotion to gardening and nature informed her sensibility and writing. Many of her poems mention flowers, including roses, daffodils and the dandelion, which were some of her favorites.