Plant of the Week
Chocolate lily (Fritillaria camschatcensis (L.) Ker-Gawl.)
By Betty Charnon
Fritillaria camschatcensis is commonly known as chocolate lily, Kamchatka fritillary, wild rice, or northern rice root. A native perennial forb, it grows in moist tide flats, meadows, open forests, rocky beaches, and stream banks in the lowland to subalpine zones. It occurs more commonly along the coast and is infrequent inland. This lily ranges from Asia (Japan) to Alaska, Yukon Territory, British Columbia, and south to portions of western Washington and Oregon. Although this species grows in a wide range of elevations and habitats it is designated as a sensitive species in the state of Washington where it is ranked as G5S2, meaning it is globally secure, but is imperiled and very vulnerable to extirpation in the state.
A member of the lily family (Liliaceae), chocolate lily grows 8-24 inches tall and its leaves are arranged in whorls of five to nine down the stem. Flowering from May to July, the flowers are dark greenish brown to brownish purple (chocolate colored), sometimes streaked or spotted with yellow and grow close together on short pedicels. The flowers are pollinated by flies, which are attracted by the plant’s foul smell. The bulbs consist of several fleshy scales and their bladelike petioles, which disintegrate into numerous rice-like bulblets.
Coastal Native Americans used bulbs of this species for food. The bulbs were broken apart and then soaked in one or more changes of water to remove the bitter taste. They were often boiled and eaten with oil or lard and were put in soups and stews. The bulbs could also be dried for wintertime use or preserved in oil. Bulbs were also dried and pounded into flour. Though slightly bitter, some people still collect and eat chocolate lily bulbs.
Despite the somewhat offensive odor, chocolate lilies are very showy and look nice in gardens. This species is easily transplanted, and grows from bulbs or seeds. Once established, chocolate lilies tend to spread in the garden. You can find chocolate lilies growing in the native plant gardens on the Chugach National Forest at the Glacier Ranger district office and the Begich Boggs Visitor Center.