Fragrant Fritillary (Fritillaria liliacea)

Fritillaries belong to the lily family (Liliaceae), along with agaves, onions (Allium), goldenstar (Bloomeria), Brodiaea, Calochortus, blue dicks (Dichelostemma), fawn lily (Erythronium), true lilies (Lilium), Muilla, Scoliopus, false Solomon\’s seal (Smilacina), Trillium, Triteleia, Yucca, and death camas (Zigadenus), among many others. Worldwide, the family includes 4,600 species in 300 genera. California supports 220 native species in 33 genera, along with another 11 nonnative species and six nonnative genera.

Like orchids, lilies tend to inspire awe when encountered in the wild. Their dramatic shapes, frequently brightly colored flowers, and short flowering period lend to our sense that we have indeed witnessed a rare treat when we happen upon them. In fact, many lilies are rare. The California Native Plant Society\’s Inventory of Rare and Endangered Vascular Plants of California lists 101 taxa as warranting some level of protection. Eight taxa are listed or proposed for listing as endangered or threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act and another eight are listed under the California Endangered Species Act.

Fritillaries are a shy and delicate group of perennials, producing flowers with no consistency whatsoever. Eighteen species have been recorded in California, all native. Some 100 species are known from the temperate zones of the Northern Hemisphere. Plants produce bulbs that develop short stems with alternate (or whorled), sessile, linear to ovate leaves along their length. Flowers are typically bell- or cup-shaped and nod on the ends of pedicels. Fritillaries are closely related to the Old World genus Tulipa, the tulips. The name is derived from the Latin fritillus, meaning a dice box or checkerboard, alluding to the checkered markings frequently found on the petals.

Fragrant fritillary is a low-growing herb, whose single, erect, 15-inch stems bear two to 20 alternate, linear to ovate leaves one-and-a-half to five inches long. White flowers with greenish stripes, about one-and-a-half inches across, nodding, sometimes sweet smelling, appear between February and April. Fritillaria liliacea occurs in heavy soils on open hillsides near the coast in coastal prairie, coastal bluff scrub, and coastal scrub habitats. It has been recorded from Alameda, Contra Costa, Monterey, Marin, San Benito, Santa Clara, San Francisco, San Mateo, Solano and Sonoma counties. A healthy population persists in Marin County near Nicasio Reservoir, but such small isolated occurrences are always at risk of cataclysmic disturbances, whether human or natural. Historically, fragrant fritillary was recorded in San Francisco from Bernal Heights (1890), Potrero Hills (1895), and Twin Peaks (1892). A reintroduction attempt on Bernal Heights produced a flowering individual in 1997 but no viable population has been reestablished to date.

Fragrant fritillary currently has no formal state or federal status as a protected species. It is on the CNPS List 1B: 1-2-3, a code which indicates that it is rare, threatened, or endangered in California; rare but found in sufficient numbers and distributed widely enough that the potential for extinction is low at this time; endangered in a portion of its range; and endemic to California. Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), impacts to the species would be considered a significant adverse effect on the environment and must be addressed in environmental documentation.

Two of the challenges facing conservationists are that fritillaries don\’t flower every year and their blooming period can be exceedingly short. In addition, the stems appear to be readily browsed by deer, rabbits, and cattle. The California Department of Fish and Game guidelines for evaluating impacts to rare plants require focused botanical surveys during each season in which all target species would be recognizable, but multi-year surveys are not typically performed. The likelihood of finding a fritillary in any given year is, at best, hit or miss. So, next year, start your flower searches a little early and see if you can\’t add a new one to your “life list.” But if you should find this jewel, be certain to provide us with an accurate description of its location and population size.