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Some Call Me Chocolate

You know how it is. When you're a pretty little thing with a brown complexion, folks tend to nickname ya "Chocolate". Not that I have anything against actual chocolate. Cocoa. Theobroma cocoa is her full name actually and boy what a fascinating lady. But we ain't even in the same order, let alone the same family. Just got a color in common. Needless to say, I also don't have Cocoa's bittersweet flavors. But we do have some bulbous parts (pardon my French) and we are edible too, but with much less work to get there. But again- similar but in very different ways.

chocolate lily, Fritillaria affinis

But anyway, this ain't her story it's mine (a chocolate lily story) and I'm gonna spin what yarn I've got. I've had a modest life really, so it's a short scarf I could knit together. I keep to myself but still attract a fair amount of attention. When you have an interesting look, that happens. See, my blossoms are what's a reminder of chocolate. Sort of a speckled bell of browns and tans beguilingly dandling down, skirted around large yellow clappers of the naughty bits inside. You'd have be quite a peeper to get a look at them. Dirty botanists, I seen 'em before. Always sneaking their "researching" peeks either for curiosity or "for science", whatever. Not that I mind much. I mean I'm modest and all, but I know how the world works and I know we're all just parts of the greater biology. Sometimes they call me checkered lily, but that seems to apply better to some tidier cousins. Is "chocolate" better?

When it comes to my babies, mind you- I put up 'em right up front and center for the whole prairie to see. Yep! Real proud momma here. I do supposed that's the way to do it right, don't you think? Hang your head a little bashful while you're a blushing young unpollinated lass, then strut with your mature fertilized-self once that special pollinator has helped you into motherhood. Hm... wondering if the flowers that only became fathers and missed out on their own special delivery of a neighbor's bio-powder are as proud? I mean, we can't all be blessed with swollen ovules in the end of the season.

But anyway, I make them growing Fritillaria embryos a down-right decorative cradle to rock-it in as they grow. I was feeling like a sorta lantern-shape for it. Or what's that middle-ages club thing with ridges? Like that. Something to highlight the three ovary chambers I've been packing deep down. You know us lilies. All in orders of threes, like charmed ones, the whole big family of Liliaceae actually is very known for that feature.

Fritillaria affinis seed pod developing with large pistils still present

There is actually one black-checkered-sheep in the Fritillaria family- snake's head lily. She's not to be trusted. Such a prime patterned little strumpet but unlike the rest of us, snake's head is the opposite of edible. Better known as Fritillaria meleagris, has a myriad of bad chemistry including an alkaloid called Imperialine, that can mess up your kidney and heart workings, also Tulipalin A, causing a allergic reaction in contacted skin. Good thing she sticks more to NW Europe and Asia, right? But she can end up on some landscaping thanks to that pretty face, so urban-forage for Fritillaria's edible bulbs with care! You can tell us apart easy enough if you look a little close. More than just the pretty face, you know. Snake's heads are actually more snakey with longer thinner leaves where my F. affinis leaves have more back at the base, you know what I mean? I'm a fuller-leafed kinda woman, tapering from a wider end more the size of a finger tip than the skinny pencil leaves Ms. meleagris has. And that very precise checkering boxy pattern of purply-browns and creams usually with single flowers nodding off slim stalks. And you know what else?! Ms. meleagris don't bother make a nice ornamental fruit for her babes. Who's better to their kids- madame Chocolate or a checkered Snake? Right?!

Actually, there's a few bad apples in the family, not a chocolate-dipped one at all. And I mean bad. Imperialine causes vomiting, spasms and even stops hearts. I prefer to just break em, not stop em out right! Fritillaria imperialis (note the name- that Imperialine alkaloid got it's name from no doubt), aka crown or imperial fritillary, plus F. cirrhosa, F. hupehensis, and F. thunbergii. The crown species has indeed a crown of nodded flowers under a leafy cap, sorta like a floral chandelier. Those imperials and others (with more greenish pale but singular nodding flowers except F. hupehensis which is a bigger-leafed checkered type) are also native to the Mediterranean and western Asia or China, but can be popular in landscaped areas in the US and all over too. Maybe it's the heat out there that made a few species get such nasty chemicals. There are a few more found with some other compounds that will kill cells but less research on them. I guess all this variety will pop up in a genus of over 130 species, huh? Actually our genus is one of the biggest in the whole Liliaceae family. We do pretty well for ourselves on that big battle ground of the evolutionary tree.

Anyway, while those snake's heads are more European (along with about 24 other fritillaries), I stick to the west coast of the US and Canada, plus Idaho a bit. There are several other species in our area too- I'm not the only Fritillaria species in the west of course, nor even in Washington but I AM the most chocolate-looking.

New scrabble word- tessellated.
Roman Fritillus from Ceramics Workshop gallery, by Alaina Elke

Our kin's name, Fritillaria comes from the Roman's dice games, referring to the shape of our flowers, looking rather like their clay dice game pots, called a fritillus. The species name of "meleagris" comes from the Latin name for a guinea hen because of a similar pattern in their plumage, very checkered white squares on mostly black.

Speaking of fun names, that checkered pattern that is so common in my kin genus is called tessellated. That's what your back looks like when you get a tan in a top with crisscrossing straps.

"Affinis" means "with affinity or allied to". What can I say; I'm a loyal type folks are drawn to. Pollinators too; don't let the mottled brown coloration make ya think I'm only under a chocolate-lovers gaze.

Usually our family has a thing with the local bees. They do usually go for the really colorful young blossoms, especially yellows and reds so you may wonder why they pay any notice to a chocolatey color more familiar from soil than a nectar source. But bees and butterflies come a calling at our brown bells. I mean, sure some flies come by too. Okay, so some people say we may look sweet but have a bit of stank, but I say someone's trash is another's treasure and flies are welcome too. Besides, we didn't make these blooms for you primates- get your face outta our tepals; you look silly down there. Any way, when no one decent drops by with another plant's pollen to dust about, we can take care of our own in-house fertilization. It's not making as diverse of kiddos as we'd like, but why not keep passing on these rockin' genes undiluted, right?

With all the species across the world, we are well known to a lot of folklore and traditional medicines as well as feeding early societies with many edible bulbs. Just avoid those bad-apple ("snakey, crowned or green" are some hints for ya). Me, I'm nearly as edible as chocolate itself. Bet you'd think my bulbs were brown, wouldn't ya? Nay! My bulbs are pearly white and kinda grainy actually. That's a special way to spread despite critters (including people) wanting to eat at your very roots. A plant can survive a nibble on the leaves just fine, even stems, but to munch our roots is more likely to kill us right at the base. So we have these teeny grain-like bulblets that pop right on off when the whole bulb complex is disturbed. Those little cuties can make a new plant just as fast as a seed but already underground.

Grams called me lil rice root back in my tiny-bulb days when she'd pretend to chase me around attempting to rein in the wildness of youth. Those bulblets do resemble rice grains and Grams must'of been teasing about me coming up from one, like a little clone of my mamma. I can still just recall the energy I had then, scampering and sprawling, looking for new nooks to dig into. Our family is always so spunky and blithe when young, green-budded with limb-like leaves fanned out in all directions reaching for sun and life itself. We whorl them around a sturdy stem before forming those nodding flower buds.

developing 1st flower bud

Our chocolatey edibility involves ricey-rooted treats that were harvested for good-eats by several local tribes in the west, easily cooked by boiling them or steaming, just like a tiny potato. They have a very adaptable flavor that could go with all sorts of other foods, much like a super market potato. The flavor is very mild, even a touch bland with a hint of potatoey flavor with tiny bit of bitter and a sticky starchy texture similar to sweet potato.

freshly boiled chocolate lily/rice-root bulb

My bulbs are better after I've gotten to make some babies for the season and foliage is all dried and crisped up, pushing the sugars made in spring down into those little bulbs for next year's growth. Or a hungry hungry human to harvest. But do be nice and scatter some of my tiny clone baby lil rice root bulblets so we can grow up some new plants.

Don't get greedy with your foraging, get sustainable.
rice-like bulblets off of Fritillaria affinis

Well, I 'spose that's just about my full yarn. I won't drone on about my seed babes. I know how us moms can chitter on long about our own youngins. There's plenty more to glean info from if the mood strikes ya. I'm kind of a big deal in some areas. Affinity- remember? I've got a pod to plump up and will leave you a chocolatey ricey checkered kiss good bye. And I'll be wondering, what is the best nickname for me?

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