Flowers in the genus “Fritillaria” are members of the lily family and many species are prized as ornamentals. Brown, green and white are common fritillary colors. Scarlet fritillary (Fritillaria recurva) is not usually seen in the commercial marketplace, and some references even classify this beautiful wildflower as rare. For me, its bright colors are a most welcome sight while hiking in early spring.
Scarlet fritillary, also locally called scarlet missionbells, is a native perennial arising from a bulb and can be found in California, Oregon and Nevada. Its preferred habitat is dry, open woodlands and ponderosa forests. These plants were photographed along the Lower Pit River (Shasta County CA).
Growing one to three feet tall, the scarlet fritillary plant is a single, erect, unbranched stem. The bottom of the stem is bare, whorls of three to five narrow leaves occur mid-stem and at the top of the stem the flower stalks emerge from the leaf axes. The stem and leaves are thinly coated with a bluish powder. The nodding flowers are on short stalks and have six petals, which are mottled with yellow on the inner surface. The petal tips are recurved, or bent backward, and give the plant its species name, recurva. It is a beautiful flower!
Native Americans ate the small scarlet frittilary bulbs, either cooked or raw. The plant is also reported to decrease mucous secretions and was used as a decongestant. I cannot speak to its decongestant properties, but in the past I did taste a bulb, which reminds me of a starchy water chestnut. Other than in an emergency or to simply taste a single bulb, there is no justification for harvesting this lovely, fairly uncommon wildflower.
Curious about the genus name I checked the etymology of Fritillaria. The generally agreed upon derivation is from the Latin “fritillus” meaning “dice-box”. This seems a little of a stretch to me, but apparently the mottling on many of the flowers in the genus reminded someone of dice.
Another lovely early spring member of this genus is the yellow bell (Fritillaria pudica).