Anticipating autumn's arrival, I've got a small stack of dog-eared print catalogs, favorite pages bookmarked online and a shopping list of spring-flowering bulbs to track down at local garden centers.

Naturally, the list is unrealistically and optimistically long (where am I going to plant all of it?), but I've got some fabulous gardens already blooming in my mind.

If you're looking for something dramatic and bold to make a statement next spring, consider planting Crown imperials or "Kaiser's crown" (Fritillaria imperalis). These exotic-looking beauties can reach 3 feet tall in the April/May garden, and they are every bit as majestic as the name implies.

A cluster of flowers hangs downward from the top of the stem, and a small crown of leaves tops the flowers. The plants aren't appealing to deer, and the large bulbs repel rodents, thanks to a rather stinky odor. Colors usually are shades of yellow and orange-red.

Flower encyclopedias place Fritillarias in the lily family, noting that the flowers are native to a stretch from Anatolia across the plateau of Iran to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Himalayan foothills.

Suitable for Zone 5, let me be a buzzkill and point out that planting these bulbs here may be a risky business. The updated USDA plant hardiness zone map places our area in Zone 5a, but like me, you may need a few more "prove it" years before being completely comfortable planting for it.

The bulbs need well-drained soil to thrive. Adding sand to the planting hole could be helpful, and make sure to plant the bulb on its side. This prevents water from rotting the top of the bulb, which has a small depression or hollow. When leaves completely dried out after flowering gently tug stem and leaves loose or cut stems to just above the ground.

Particularly striking in this genus is F. persica or Persian fritillaria. These bulbs produce nearly 3 feet tall stalks of deep purple-black bells with gold centers. It's suitable for Zone 4 and is deer-resistant.

My absolute favorite in this family of about 100 species is F. meleagris, which bloom in spring to late spring in my front garden. An heirloom dating from 1572, brought from France to England, it is also the national symbol for Croatia. The flower goes by other common names like checkered lily, guinea hen flower and snakeshead (unopened buds resemble snakes' heads).

A cottage-garden charmer, nodding, bell-shaped flowers have a unique checkerboard pattern on the petals, and blade-thin foliage is easily mistaken for grass. They reach only 15 inches talland naturalize if they like the spot. Like other fritillaria, plants can handle spring sun or partial shade.

Mass plantings of all fritillaria adds to the impact. Plant F. meleagris 3 or 4 inches deep; larger fritillaria bulbs should be planted 5 to 6 inches deep.


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