Fritillaria gentneri

Common Names:
Gentner mission-bells, Gentner's fritillary, Gentner's frittilary, Gentner's mission-bells
Growth Habit:
CPC Number:
Profile Contributors:
Edward Guerrant, Ph.D.
Fully Sponsored

Reference Links

ITIS - Tropicos - USDA Plants - Fish & WildLife

Participating Institutions

The following Participating Institutions are custodians for this species in the CPC National Collection:
Rae Selling Berry Seed Bank & Plant Conservation Programs

The conservation of Fritillaria gentneri is fully sponsored.
Edward Guerrant, Ph.D. contributed to this Plant Profile.


For a short but glorious time each spring, the solitary, almost sculptural waxy-blue stems, with their clusters of dagger-like leaves, of Gentner's fritillary are festooned with striking purplish-red bell-like flowers, themselves decorated with a loose checkerboard streaking of yellow spots. The species is known from around 60 localities, all in southwest Oregon, diffusely scattered over an area of almost 3,000 square miles. This apparently large number of 'populations' paints a misleading picture of how seriously endangered Fritillaria gentneri really is. As of 2001, there were apparently fewer than 600 flowering plants in all, with many populations consisting of a single individual. Balanced precariously on the knife-edge of extinction, it is caught in the swirling crosscurrents of a diverse array of serious threats, both natural and, for want of a better term, conceptual.

Beginning with the more slippery latter category of conceptual threats, F. gentneri has run aground on two classic conundrums, 'What is a species' and, 'What is a population' That it is both rare and endangered has been known for decades, but questions of whether or not it is a 'good' species, and therefore potentially an entity worthy of protection under the Endangered Species Act, sidetracked for many years serious consideration for listing. Granted, its appearance is intermediate between two more common fritillaria species, the drab, chocolate-flowered F. affinis (=F. lanceolata) and the almost garish orangish-scarlet flowered F. recurva. Furthermore, one or both of these two species are sometimes found growing alongside or even intermingled within Gentner's fritillaria 'populations'. The problem was not so much whether it is of hybrid origin per se, because a great many 'good' species are of hybrid origin. Rather, the problem was whether or not it is a single historical entity that arose once, or whether each instance is the result of independent and recurring hybridization events. That it appears only very rarely to produce fertile seed poses its own set of problems, both biological and administrative. Although the results of a genetic study could not absolutely rule out the possibility of multiple origins, they, along with other morphological evidence strongly support the notion that it is a 'good' species (Guerrant 1992).

Once that hurdle could safely be left behind, the problem of what constitutes a population remains. Debates over the definition of a population bear some resemblance to medieval battles over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. That is, we are not likely to arrive at an answer that satisfies everybody, and those holding different opinions often do so with admirable if not always productive tenacity. For example, consider just one criterion, that of actual or potential gene flow, which some value very highly as a defining characteristic of a biological population. How can it be applied to a species that rarely if ever exchanges any genes at all, and seems to reproduce by non-sexual vegetative spread most or all of the time Add to that, the extremely diffuse distribution across the landscape, many populations consist of single, isolated individuals, you can get a flavor for some of the conceptual threats to this species.

There is light visible at the end of a long tunnel in the form of an excellent draft Recovery Plan (Gisler and Meinke 2001) working its way through the system. The population problem was solved in a pragmatic way by dividing the entire known range into a regular longitude-latitude grid with 0.1 minute of arc intervals. Each cell, or macroplot, of the grid covers an area of roughly 6.3 acres (2.56 hectares). Of the 53 macroplots ever known to have had plants, only 45 remained extant at the time of listing (USFWS 1999), containing a grand total of fewer than 600 flowering individuals. The proposed criteria downlisting from endangered to threatened status call for 10 secure populations, each with 500 flowing individuals and a demographically appropriate complement of smaller plants be established. These populations are also to be made secure from all the threats that led to the species becoming listed in the first place, which brings us back to the panoply of natural threats, or at least threats in the natural world, facing the species. It exists at the interfaces between lots of ecological factors. Gentner's fritillary is considered a mid-successional species of grasslands and chaparral habitats at or near the edges of dry, relatively open mixed broadleaf-evergreen woodlands. Like so many early to mid-successional species that inhabit fire prone areas that have been subject to aggressive fire suppression activities for decades, Gentner's fritillary is besieged by encroaching trees and shrubs transforming its habitat. It is also threatened by outright habitat loss associated with rapidly expanding agricultural and residential development as well as competition from non-native weeds.
As grim as it seems, there is reason for hope. In part because it has a high public profile as a rare and appealing lily, numerous conservation measures by public agencies, private organizations and individuals have been initiated.

Distribution & Occurrence


Conservation, Ecology & Research