(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 13, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Early March is the time to go. The place is a bit in the middle of nowhere--as middle of nowhere as you're going to get in coastal Los Angeles County, anyway. Park where the paved road ends and take the trail that goes south through the oak woodland. The sign says to watch out for mountain lions but I've never seen one. You're better off watching out for ticks. Come back in a couple weeks to see the blue-eyed grass, mariposa lilies, and crimson pitcher sage. Follow the trail to the left. Pay attention now. Take the animal trail to the right, and partly up the grassy hillside you'll find the chocolate lilies. First you'll see one or two, and then as you train your eyes, you'll see them all over, but if you hadn't known exactly where to look, you would never have found them. Maybe they really are more common than they seem, but their subdued coloring keeps them from standing out. When I find plants in a location where I hadn't seen them before, I feel almost like I've been let in on a secret.
Chocolate lilies are native to the lower elevations of the Coast Ranges of California. They grow mainly in grassland in heavy clay soil. Plants are usually a foot high or less. This field guide information may come across a bit dry, but there is Old California romance in chocolate lily country. Remember that hill with the strange rock formation on top? It is on private property, so we can't go there, but at the base of the hill, there is a cave with Chumash Indian rock paintings. On the way back to the car, I'll show you a tree. It was badly burned in the fire of 1983. It must have been massive before that, for it is figured to be 700 years old. Legend has it that the bandit Joaquin Murrieta would sometimes hide here when things got too intense up north.
The species name of chocolate lily is Fritillaria biflora, which means two flowers, but a plant can have anywhere from 1 to 20 flowers and buds. They grow from a bulb, and though each individual bulb does not bloom every year, if there are a group of bulbs, you will find blooming plants in the same location year after year.
I have never tried growing chocolate lily. I just have a sense that it would not do well under domestication. However, cultivation instructions do exist. The plants are considered suitable for Sunset zones 7 and 14-21. In other words, not in places where the winters are too cold or too warm and the summers are too hot, though they do need to be kept dry in the summer. PlantFiles lists the species as hardy in USDA zones 9a to 11, but based on what I have read and have seen of the plant in the wild, I would say that it is not suitable for the desert or tropics. The plant can be grown in pots. Plants grown from seed take about 5 years to reach blooming size. There is a cultivar called 'Martha Roderick', which is lighter color than the wild species. Growing instructions are the same as for the species.
Maybe someday I'll try growing chocolate lily, but maybe not. Of course I love growing things, but there is something special about finding the plant in the wild that I just don't get from growing a plant at home. Just like chocolate would be less special had every day, I think the same would apply to chocolate lily. I will leave it as a wildflower treat.Note: Fritillaria camschatcensis is also known as chocolate lily. This species is native to the northern Pacific Rim from the northwestern United States to Japan.
Photos property of the author. Thank you, Mrs_Ed. for the graphics on the thumbnail photo.
Quote of unknown origin from Flowering Plants of the Santa Monica Mountains