GARDENING I AM well used to the mystery plant scenario.
Something unusual springs up in someone’s garden — often seemingly from no-where — and, understandably, the gardener wants to know what the heck it is.
Last week, it was John Middleton’s mystery and I am grateful for all of you who took the trouble to e-mail me with the correct answer.
But, a bit like buses, as soon as one mystery comes along and is solved, along comes another — this time, something in my own front patch.
I must have planted the bulb way back and for a few years straggly foliage has appeared but nothing else.
This year, it poked up a flower head on a 1ft stalk and I have been unable to find a satisfactory identity, despite long internet trawls.
It has the distinctive leafy top-knot of the imperial fritillary but not the brilliant orange or yellow flowers, and certainly not the delightful, addictive, fox-like smell of musk.
The collection of small flowers beneath the leafy crown gives it the appearance, from a distance — to the myopic at least — of a small pineapple.
So over to you, again, good gardeners of Wight. This time I promise to put a label on it.
It did get me thinking about fritillaries, though.
I once had a collection of the orange and yellow imperials and they are, indeed, imperious.
They are well worth a place in the spring border, not only for their showy, unusual flowers and distinctive top-knot of leaves, but for that smell, which is what attracted me to the bulbs in the first place.
The crown imperial is the first big bulb to flower in springtime, atop unfeasibly large stems, its hanging bells lighting up sunny or lightly shaded beds.
There are several different imperial varieties, among them the brick-red William Rex.
It is always worth cutting a stem and bringing it indoors, not just for the appearance but for that smell.
They will last up to a fortnight but if you can leave a section of the leafy part of the stem outside it will give the plant the chance to generate enough stored energy both to survive dormancy and bloom again next year.
Nodding away nearby in the border were the delightful snake’s head fritillaries, which are better placed in a patch of grass or meadow, which sets off these little plants beautifully.
Snake’s head fritillaries are natives to this country and for that reason they are fairly easy to grow.
Rare in the wild, they are readily available as bulbs in the autumn or pot-grown in the spring.
A meadow location is good because the snake’s head likes it moist — as I discovered, to their cost.
If they are in a border that dries out over summer, they will not continue to thrive.
If you are growing them from bulbs, you should get them in the ground before the chill of winter.
Plant them deep, up to six inches, and add plenty of humus. The delicately purple, pink and white chequered flowers should appear from April to May.
Planting is easier if the grass is short, so mow once growth has slowed in the autumn and then pop them in.
If you plant a lot of bulbs then a long-handled bulb planter is a canny investment.
It can be a bit like a garden production line, using the removed plug from the first hole to fill in the next.
If you want them in a naturalised meadow, you won’t be able to mow until at least August, but that inevitably means picking out broadleaved weeds, such as thistles and docks, which will invade, which reminds me of yet another job that needs doing.