Crown Imperial

(Fritillaria imperialis) This is a native of Persia, and was brought to Vienna from Constantinople by Charles de l'Ecluse in 1576, provoking an outbreak of "Tulipomania", with similarly high prices. Perhaps the name is an allusion to the Habsburg court in Vienna (Elliott). Gerard, twenty years later, was still full of wonder when describing the plant - "in the bottom of each of these bells there is placed sixe drops of most cleare shining sweet water, in taste like sugar, resembling in shew faire orient pearles; the which drops if you take away, there do immediately appeare the like; notwithstanding if they be suffered to stand still in the floure according to his own nature, they will never fall away, no, not if you strike the plant untill it be broken". Such a plant would engender strange origin legends. One said that it was once a queen whose beauty, instead of contenting her husband the king, made him jealous, and in a moment of anger and suspicion he drove her from his palace. She, well knowing her own innocence, wept so constantly at this injustice as she wandered about the fields, that her very substance shrank to the measure of a plant, and at last God rooted her feet where she had paused, and changed her to the crown imperial, still bearing in its blossoms something of the dignity and command she had worn as a human being (Skinner). A Scottish tradition says that the crown imperial hangs its flowers down for shame at not having bowed to the Lord, and the spots at the bottom of the bells are the everlasting tears it sheds in contrition (Simpson). Yet another legend says it was white once, but was dyed red by the blood of Christ at Gethsemane (Bazin).

In at least one area of Buckinghamshire, crown imperial seems to have ousted native flowers as the embodiment of the May. The older children each had one to carry round from door to door in the villages (Buckinghamshire FWI). There is another side to the plant, though, for it is toxic, the active principle being imperialine, described as a heart poison (Whittle & Cook), also found in F meleagris. Even honey made from the nectar is said to be emetic. The bulbs, so it is said, have been used for killing dogs (Lindley).

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