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Crown imperial is exiting the garden after another fabulous spring show. The orange blossoms are fading, wilting and will soon drop. Then the rest of the plant will begin to dissolve back into the ground.
As befits nobility, crown imperial comes and goes as it pleases, often in a fickle or unpredictable manner. Mine was planted over 20 years ago, and for its first half-dozen years refused to show more than just leaves.
The flowers were worth the wait. Eventually, a leafy stalk emerged from the center of the ground-level whorl of leaves, the stalk capped with a crown: a tuft of leaves, below which hung a ring of nodding, orange blossoms. A teardrop of nectar poised at the end of each petal.
HIS MAJESTY MOVES
After a couple years of enjoying the flowers, I decided that the site was not befitting this royal plant. So I dug the bulb out from the back corner of my vegetable garden and moved it to a more prominent place beneath a cherry tree.
His Majesty evidently was displeased with the move, for he never emerged at his new location. I don’t know if he scooted underground the 30 feet back to the original site or what, but he has faithfully kept up his royal appearances there ever since.
(Crown imperial is a bulb that makes offsets. My plant’s odd behavior could be explained by my having dug up a large offset and inadvertently left the mother bulb or another large offset in place. I also, then, must have made some mistake in planting the offset, even though I tried to cater to His Highness’ needs with well-drained soil, rich in humus, and a topping of mulch. Some gardeners suggest planting the bulb on its side so that water does not collect on top of the bulb, rotting it.)
A few summers ago, I decided to expand the royal family. As soon as the leaves and stem disappeared, I carefully dug up the softball-size bulb and pulled off a few outer layers of scales.
MULTIPLYING THE BULB
Crown imperial has naked scales, like lilies, which similarly are susceptible to damage and drying out. The scales went into a plastic bag along with plenty of moist peat and perlite, and then sat in a warm room for a month or two while bulblets formed at the base of each scale. After that, I moved the bags to the refrigerator for another two months, where they would get the cool conditions needed before growth could begin. Once they were out of the refrigerator, I potted up the bulblets and waited for spring. Then out they went into the garden.
You might think a lot of coddling was required to bring up this royal family. Given the price of crown imperial bulbs — over $10 each! — nurseries evidently do consider this to be royal treatment.
But mostly what I supplied was patience, which has now rewarded me with a regal line of crown imperials in a bed above a rock wall, and another one sharing a bed with redcurrant bushes. The plants generally need a year of growth in the ground after planting before they’ve built up sufficient energy reserves to flower.
The patriarch of my family of crown imperials, my original plant, flowers as gloriously every spring as any other, apparently unfazed by occasionally having a few bulb scales removed and having to share its domain with numerous heirs.
One caution if your interest has been kindled in growing, perhaps propagating, crown imperial: His Highness does emit an odor that offends some gardeners, an odor similar to skunk. The aroma is mild, though, and pleasing to many noses.