Native Fritillaria


Uh oh. A slip of the fingers on the keyboard means I deleted the photos that were more focused than this one…

Where the chocolate lilies (Fritillaria affinis) bloom close to home is not a secret, but it feels like one. I started looking for them a few weeks ago when the weather was cool, and found the stems coming up through the pinegrass behind the big warehouse at the ranger station. A week later, the tight green buds were visible. Now the days are warm and the flowers are open. After a day of fierce mental activity in the office, I went out to visit the flowers.

I feel fortunate to work at a Forest Service office where there are still trees behind the buildings. When the place was originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the early 1930s, the ponderosa pines were shoulder-height. Now they tower and sway, cinnamon-barked trunks bare of limbs for many feet above the ground, creating a wonderful openness in the stand. Underneath is a carpet of native vegetation. Intact ponderosa pine communities are rare in Washington–remnants of this forest type exist where they have escaped logging, development, and alteration of the natural disturbance regime (such as fire suppression). So it is remarkable to observe white-headed woodpeckers (they are p. pine specialists) nesting on the edge of town, and a patch of native plants a minute’s walk from the office.

When I need a break from the computer screen, difficult conversations and general chaos and confusion I slip away to the warehouse, climb the bank and poke around in the grass. Late this afternoon the warm sun had released the sweet scent of pine and lupines. The grass is a tangle of skinny green blades, and wildflowers tumble across the slope: clumps of yellow balsamroot with their silvery arrow leaves; orange paintbrush; purple lupines; creamy spikes of death camas, and sulfur yellow western puccoon. The chocolate lilies rise on slender stems with whorls of oval leaves. Not splashy or showy, you have to look for them. Technically they are not brown, but purple. Each petal has a distinct checkered pattern of purple, green and yellow. I crouched low to the ground to look through the camera viewfinder at the inside of the lily bell. Some of the flowers were in shade, others caught the westering sunlight. I found myself holding still, to notice the breeze moving the flowers. At that moment, I had a secret right in plain sight. At that moment, time held still and I forgot who I was.

Georgia O’Keeffe became famous for her flower paintings, and she wrote this in 1939: “A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower–the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower–lean forward to smell it–maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking–or give it to someone to please them. Still–in a way–nobody sees a flower–really–it is so small–we haven’t time–and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time. If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like a flower is small.”

Taking time to see what is small…maybe it is time to paint chocolate lilies before they disappear for another year.

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