Hooker’s Fairy Bells (Prosartes hookeri)

Although the common name might look familiar, you probably don’t recognize the Latin name of this member of the lily family (Liliaceae). The generic designation was recently changed back to its original name, assigned in 1839. Perhaps you’ll recognize the name listed in The Jepson Manual: Disporum. A rose by any other name…

Hooker’s fairy bells is an upright perennial herb occurring in moist, shaded woods. Leaves are distinctly heart-shaped, unequal at the base, one to three inches long, and with pointed tips. Plants are sparsely branching, roughly pubescent, and one to three feet tall. The pendulous, bell-shaped flowers have creamy to greenish-white recurved petals a little over half an inch long. The flowers, which grow in clusters of one to six, appear March through May. Fruits consist of bright red berries appearing July through September.
Hooker’s fairy bells occurs away from the immediate coast from Monterey County to Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska, and eastward to Idaho and Montana. In California, it is restricted to elevations below about 5,000 feet in the Coast Ranges, occurring in mixed evergreen and redwood forests. Although considered common, it’s very likely that you haven’t knowingly seen this plant, as it blends in quite well with the forest understory. When you first come upon it, you might think you’re looking at false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina spp.). Even if you see it in flower, you’re likely to doubt you’re looking at a lily. But when you do see it, you’ll know you’re looking at something different.
Named for Sir Joseph Hooker (1785-1865), director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England, and the founder of the Journal of Botany. Hooker’s fairy bells was first described by John Torrey (1796-1873). Torrey, a professor of botany and chemistry in New York, described the specimens from many of the early expeditions to the west coast. The names of both Hooker and Torrey have been immortalized in the scientific and common names of many plants.
On the northern San Francisco Peninsula, Hooker’s fairy bells is quite rare, restricted as it is to Mount Sutro and the greenbelt above UCSF. It is also extant at Sharp Park and uncommon on San Bruno Mountain (McClintock, et al. 1990), just over the county line. Until relatively recently it occurred above the Laguna Honda Reservoir. There are no historic records of it occurring in the San Francisco Presidio. In their A Flora of San Francisco, California, Howell, Raven, and Rubtzoff (1958) list the species as having occurred in the “hills south of Golden Gate Park.” Katherine Brandegee (1891) listed the species as occurring in Sunset Heights. Thomas (1961) lists Hooker’s fairy bells in redwood and Douglas fir forests, mixed forests and brush-covered hills at Crystal Springs Lake, La Honda, Kings Mountain, Stevens Creek, Los Gatos, Uvas Canyon, and Soquel.
Hooker’s fairy bells is not listed as rare or endangered under the federal or California endangered species acts, nor has it been assigned any status as a rare species by the CNPS. As such, impacts to it receive no protection or review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). However, in our local chapter area, the CNPS has designated it as being locally significant due to its restricted occurrence and perceived threats to its continued existence here.
This spring, when you are planning your walks, try to find Hooker’s fairy bells at Mount Sutro, where it is still thriving.