Checker Lily

Checker Lily © TCorelli

Mission Bells
Fritillaria affinis

Description (Jepson,

  • Monocotyledon
    • Monocots are a major lineage of flowering plants; see family for general characteristics
  • Lily Family (Liliaceae)
  • Perennial herb
    • Grows from a bulb (short underground stem with fleshy leaves, e.g. onion)
  • Leaves
    • Whorls of 5-11 lance-shaped leaves on lower part of stem
    • Alternate (1 leaf at each junction with stem) on upper part of stem
  • Flowers
    • Erect, unbranched stem bends to hold nodding, cup-shaped flowers
    • Inflorescence (flower arrangement) is a raceme (unbranched stem with stalked flowers opening from the bottom up)
    • Flowers have 3 petals and 3 sepals (outer flower parts) in 2 separate whorls, similar in appearance and collectively called tepals
      • Tepals are green yellow, mottled with brown and purple
      • Green-yellow nectar gland at the base of petals
    • Ovary superior (above the attachment of other flower parts)
  • Fruit is a widely-winged, box-shaped capsule (a dry, multi-chambered fruit that splits open)
    • When the fruit begins to form, the flower stalk straightens up
  • Height to 1.5 ft.


  • Native to California
    • Grows in coastal scrub, chaparral, grasslands, foothill woodlands, and mixed evergreen forests
    • 55-64% of plants occur on ultramafic soils, e.g. serpentine; see ultramafic affinity rankings (Calflora per Safford and Miller 2020)
    • See Calflora for statewide observations of this plant
  • Outside California, grows in a wide range on the Pacific coast of North America, from British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, to Idaho and Montana
  • Grows at elevations to 5,900 ft.

Uses (San Mateo County Parks prohibits removal of any natural material)

  • Wildlife
    • Visited by solitary bees, sweat bees, and other insect species that require pollen for their developing larvae
  • Native people
    • Ate the bulbs boiled, steamed, roasted, or baked in earthen ovens (Anderson 2005)
    • See Lily family for more details about how Native people actively managed edible geophytes
  • CAUTION – some Fritillaria species are toxic

Name Derivation

  • Fritillaria (fri-til-AIR-ee-a) – from the Latin fritillus, “dicebox,” probably referring to the shape of the seedpod or the patterned flowers
    • For information about ancient dice boxes/cups, including images, see Thayer 2019
  • affinus (a-FIN-is) – from the Latin for “bordering on” or “similar to,” here referring to the best representative of the genus
  • Checker lily – refers to the patterned flower
Flower (L), Fruit (M), Nurse Leaf (R) © DSchiel


  • Geophytes (e.g. plants growing from bulbs, corms, rhizomes, or enlarged taproots) are well adapted to survive fire, our Mediterranean climate’s long, dry summers, and extended droughts
    • Above-ground growth dies back after flowering, while underground the plant survives with stored water and nutrients
  • Each bulb produces a blooming stem usually every other spring
    • During a non-blooming year, the bulb produces one large, wide, shiny oval leaf that lies on the ground
      • This resting or nurse leaf will be the only evidence of the plant
      • Produces food (carbohydrates) by photosynthesis for growth of the bulb and, in another year, a blooming stem
  • Plant has 3 different leaf types: a nurse or resting leaf, whorled leaves on the lower stem, and solitary leaves on upper stem
  • Many of California’s Fritillaria species are of limited distribution and are declining in numbers due to habitat loss and horticultural collecting (Himes 1997)

ID Tips

  • When not flowering, may be confused with the white globe lily (Calochortus albus)
    • Checker lily
      • Nurse leaf is short and wide
      • Mature plant leaves are in a whorled arrangement near the base of the plant, as well as alternate along the stem
    • White globe lily
      • Nurse leaf is narrow and strap-like
      • Mature plant leaves alternate along the stem
  • Checker lily is sometimes confused with the chocolate lily (F. biflora), which has a less mottled, usually darker flower, lacks whorled leaves, and is a California endemic found locally, but not in Edgewood
  • Check out this short video (Jepson 2019) for more ID tips

At Edgewood

  • Found in woodlands
  • Flowers March – May

See General References

Specific References

Anderson, M.K. 2005. Tending the Wild. University of California, Berkeley.

Breckling, B. 2008. Spring Wildflowers of Henry W. Coe State Park and the Inland San Francisco Bay Area. Pine Ridge Association.

Corelli T. 2005, Mar. Green ribbons and bows. Edgewood Explorer.

Himes, K. 1997, Mar. Edgewood’s two Fritillaria, harbingers of spring. Edgewood Explorer.

Jepson Herbarium. 2019, May 2. Fritillaria affinis (checker lily) [Video]. The Jepson Videos: Visual Guide to the Plants of California. The Regents of the University of California. YouTube.

Safford, H.D. and J.E.D. Miller. 2020. An updated database of serpentine endemism in the California flora. Madroño 67(2): 85-104. BioOne Complete. PDF hosted by San Diego State University, San Diego, California.

Thayer, B. 2019. Fritillus. LacusCurtius: Into the Roman World.