Coming recently from south-central New Mexico I was thrust backwards in the progression of seasons. At the Bosque del Apache NWR daily temperatures were already in the low 80’s and nights above freezing. Here in in the high desert of SE Oregon (same altitude of 4500 feet) spring is still trying to assert her dominance.
Although I arrived at the Refuge during a sunny warm day in bare feet wearing sandals, that was a tease. Night temperatures have been consistently below 32 F (one night at 17 degrees!) and I’m lucky to see day temps in the high 50’s. I wish I had brought more warm clothing.
Two days this week were devoted to hiking and scouting the Stinking Lake Natural Research Area, a ‘wilderness’ area on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Armed with binocular, maps, GPS, water bottle, and thick warm layers, a total of 15 miles were hiked and explored, with the last day accumulating 8.5 of those miles. My back and feet are still protesting (need better boots).
An example of a small spring-fed alkaline lake, the predominant plant community along the shore is alkali-saltgrass/black greasewood. On my way to nearby Derrick Lake I happened to find the first flower of spring here in SE Oregon’s high desert. Diminutive, dainty, bright, and elegant yellow bells are the harbinger of spring in sagebrush country.
Yellow bells can be found in loose dry soil in alpine and sub-alpine communities as well as in sage-steppe lands. It is one of the earliest spring flowers, sometimes appearing in small bare islands surrounded by shallow snow. It needs the early season’s moisture, but can also be found along rocky ridges in the mountains.
Like most other lilies, yellow bells have grass-like leaves which arrive from underground bulbs. The 1-2 nodding flowers branch from the top of a thick round stem. Numerous smaller bulblets grow on the main bulb’s primary roots and the bottom exterior surface, which is why this plant is sometimes referred to as ‘rice root’. Native Americans used the bulb and bulblets as a source of food, cooked or raw.
The bright yellow nodding flowers are short-lived and become orangish or reddish as they age. Dried capsules resemble a dice box, a cylindrical box used to shake dice by the Romans. This is reflected in the generic name for this plant, Fritilaria, derived from the Latin term, fritill, meaning ‘dice box’.
The species name, pudica, is Latin for ashamed or bashful and refers to its nodding habit. On the other hand, there are several more nodding Fritillarias that can be found on the North American continent. Another species I am familiar with is F. affinis, also known as chocolate lily, checker lily, or leopard lily. This flashy nodding flower is often found in the deep woods of western Oregon, again appearing in early spring. This species is not commonly found within the high desert area, instead preferring a more wet, darker and more humus environment. Although this flower’s velvety dark chocolate or purple background is beautifully speckled with orange and yellow, its aroma is repugnant.
How better to attract flies for pollination in a dark moist place than smell like decaying meat?