The genus fritillaria comprises around 100 species of rounded plants belonging to the Liliaceae family. Plants in this genus are also known as Oriental lily and are indigenous to the temperate climatic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. The genus has derived its name ‘fritillaria' from the Latin word meaning a dice box, which probably denotes the checked prototype of the flowers. Together, in English the genus is known as fritillaries, while some species of this genus found in North America are called mission bells.
The rhizomes of the plants of this genus are collected during the early summer when the parts of the plants above the ground have dried up. These rhizomes have high remedial properties and herbal medicine practitioners use the thick slices of the bulbous roots of fritillaria. It is very important to use the appropriate species of fritillaria while treating patients. Herbalists in Asian countries usually use a secondary variety of fritillaria known as Fritillaria cirrhosa. This variety of fritillaria is said to be poisonous if it is used without thorough processing. In fact, the majority of the species of fritillaries contains toxic alkaloids like imperialin and some may even be deadly if ingested.
Although some the fritillaria species being toxic in nature, they are used as food as well as for their remedial properties. While the leaves and roots of the plants in this genus are used extensively, even the bulb or rhizome of the plant is consumed fried or candied. The bulbs or rhizomes of the plants usually measure 3 cm in diameter. Even the young plants of some of the fritillaria species and buds are consumed after cooking.
Plants belonging to the different species of the genus fritillaria are antitussive, expectorant as well as febrifuge by nature. The rhizomes of these plants are capable of countering toxic effects or diseases (antidote), contract the tissues or canals of the body and diminish mucus or blood discharges (astringent), exciting secretion of milk (galacto-gouge), suppress coughing (antitussive), promote discharge of cough and other fluids from the respiratory tract (expectorant) and cleanse the body by evacuating bowels (purgative). The plants enclose an element called fritimine that declines the irritability of the respiratory centers, bring voluntary movements to a standstill as well as counteract or offset the impacts of opium. The rhizomes of plants under this genus are believed to counteract against tumors and swellings in the throat, neck and chest. Hence, they are prescribed for treating thyroid gland nodules, scrofula (primary tuberculosis of the lymphatic glands, especially of the neck), abscesses (a localized collection of pus in the tissues of the body, often accompanied by swelling and inflammation), boils as well as breast cancer. The bulb of the plant is also used internally to treat bronchitis, coughs, pneumonia, symptoms associated with fever as well as abscess and other conditions. In China, the rhizomes of the plants belonging to the genus fritillaria have been traditionally used for treating lung and breast cancers. It is important to use the bulbs of the plants of this genus for treatment under the guidance of qualified herbal medicine practitioners as an excess dosage of the medications prepared with the rhizome may result in breathing problems and heart failure. These bulbs are usually harvested during winter when they lie latent and the aerial parts of the plants have withered. They are dried in the sun and stored for later usage.
Plants belonging to the genus fritillaria are very strong cough suppressants or antitussives and also provide relief from inflammation in the same manner as the use of steroids. As discussed above, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners have been using fritillaria to treat people suffering from ailments like bronchial contaminations, pneumonia, and having problems in throwing out mucus accumulated in the respiratory centers. Plants of this genus have also been utilized in treating conditions such as swollen glands, abscesses and nodular swellings. It is thought to be particularly effective in curing abscess in the breast and lungs.
Fritillaria is especially beneficial for treating specific conditions and they include coughs, laryngitis, influenza and lupus. Using medications prepared with fritillaria helps to widen the bronchial tubes, get rid of cough, as well as lessen salivation. Recent researches have revealed that the herb works much in the same manner as the drug dexamethasone - Cortastat, Dexasone, Decadron and the like, that are used by modern allopathic medical practitioners to cure nasal allergy as well as inflammation. In addition, the herb has been found to be very effective in treating lupus.
Habitat and cultivation
Fritillarias are one of the easiest flowering bulbous plants to cultivate and they thrive well in woodland gardens. The plants can tolerate full sun as well as partial shade. In fact, a lightly shaded and sheltered location is ideal for cultivating fritillarias. In addition, these plants prefer acidic, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils that can retain moisture. Fritillarias prefer a well-drained sandy or medium loamy soil, but grow well in any type of garden soil. The plants grow best in a moist swampy soil in an open garden and can be easily cultivated in a reasonably fertile soil. Fritillarias also thrive well in relatively arid soils and when mature can tolerate drought. When the rhizomes or bulbs of fritillarias are latent they are quite enduring and are able to survive even when the temperature of the soil drops to below -5° C. It is best to plant the rough and peeling bulbs on their sides or surrounded in sand to avoid water accumulating in their hollow tops.
The plants belonging to this genus bloom between March and May and the flowers are hermaphrodite in nature, i.e. they bear both male and female organs. This species is grown in Europe and Asia as a medicinal plant and they take around three to five years from sowing seed to flowering. While the flowers of fritillarias are usually pollinated by insects, plants in this genus are also propagated by division of the bulbs/ rhizomes during autumn.
Fritillarias is generally propagated by their seeds. It is best to sow the seeds of this species in a cold frame immediately after they ripen, as this would enable them to germinate during the spring. It is essential to protect the young plants from frost. The stored seeds of fritillarias need to be sown at the earliest and they often take about a year or more to germinate. While sowing the seeds, ensure that they are not put too deep into the soil as it may make it difficult to prick out the seedlings. When the seeds germinate, it is important to provide them some liquid sustenance occasionally with a view to make sure that the seedlings do not have to put up with mineral deficiency.
Divide the small bulbs when the aerial parts of the plant wither at the end of their second growing season and plant two to three of these parts into a deep container that has around 8 cm depth. Grow these bulb parts for a minimum period of one year in semi-shade conditions in a greenhouse prior to planting them outdoors while they are still in a dormant state. The division of the bulbs/ rhizomes offsets during August. While the relatively bigger bulbs can be straightaway planted in their permanent positions outdoors, it is advisable to put the smaller bulbs in pots and continue growing them in a cold frame for another year before they can also be planted in their permanent positions outdoors during the next autumn.
As mentioned earlier, the fritillaria bulbs are scaly on the exterior and have a pungent smell. This specific odor of the bulbs is a natural deterrent to rodents, making fritillaria a great choice for gardens. Fritillaria flowers have different hues ranging from deep purple to white. The plants bear narrow leaves that are alternate and rather sparse. The petals have a typical checkered pattern. The fritillarias are relatively carefree and do not require much care once the plants have matured. The plants, however, require regular watering till the flowering season in spring and are able to retain water during the winters.
Side effects and cautions
The patent medication called ‘qing chi hua tang' (Fritillaria and Pinellia Syrup) are the most commonly available varieties of fritillaria. If you are using this medication as per the recommendations of your health care provider or according to the instructions given on its label, it is safe and non-toxic. Here is a word of caution. Many Chinese pharmacies may be found selling unprocessed fritillaria and this substance should never ever be used internally. As the use of medications prepared with fritillaria encourages the contractions of the uterus, it should not be used in any form during pregnancy. In addition, people enduring high blood pressures should never take any medication prepared with fritillaria.