Earlier this week I compared Hooker’s fairybell (Prosartes hookeri) and Smith’s fairybell (Prosartes smithii), two plants that look identical unless one looks closely at the flower stamens and stigma – see Hooker’s fairybell 05-23-18 and Smith’s fairybell 05-21-18. Earlier this month, Leonard and I returned to the Cove Fire site to observe the forest’s recovery after the devastating August 2017 wildfires. I was surprised to see the unusual-hued checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) discussed on 04-23-18 “Checker Lily“. Then I looked closely at the leaf arrangement and realized that my discovery was the uncommon mountain fritillary (Fritillaria atropurpurea), not a checker lily.
Like the checker lily, a mountain fritillary stem arises from a fleshy, scaled bulb that resembles a ball of rice grains. The leaves of both plants are linear. The flowers are nodding and variable: greenish with purple spots or creme to yellowish with heavy dark purple-brown mottling. There is a central, divided style surrounded by large yellow stamens. The fruit of both species is a capsule.
One difference between mountain fritillary and the checker lily, although the plants look alike on first glance, is in the leaf arrangement. Mountain fritillary leaves are arranged alternately on the stem with the lower portion of the stem naked. Checker lily leaves are whorled in groups of three with the uppermost “whorl” composed of two opposite leaves.
A second difference between mountain fritillary and checker lily is the aspect of the tepals. Mountain fritillary tepals are spreading while checker lily tepals remain closed.
A native perennial, mountain fritillary is a member of the Lily Family that grows in rich damp soils of open woods between 6,000 and 10,500 feet. It can be found in California, Arizona, and New Mexico north to Oregon, Idaho, Montana. Mountain fritillary is also found in North and South Dakota and Nebraska, but not Washington State.
The mountain fritillary bulb is rich in starch and can be eaten raw or cooked. However, since the plant is uncommon, it should not be sacrificed for culinary purposes.
The species name derives from Latin and means “dark purple”.
The mountain fritillary plants were growing along Modoc National Forest Road 40N11 near Adin CA (Modoc County). The checker lily was photographed along Water Gulch Trail near Lake Shasta (Shasta County CA).