Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
On grassy slopes of western North Dakota one may be lucky enough to find the beautiful leopard lily. The plant has occasionally been found east of the Missouri River. Elsewhere, the plant ranges from eastern Oregon southward to Nebraska and California.
Leopard lily is a perennial from a fleshy-scaled bulb. Plants are up to 16 inches tall; the few narrow leaves are about 3 inches long. One to 4 flowers about an inch wide grow from the leaf bases. The flowers are variable; they may be purplish-brown spotted with yellow or white, or green with yellow edges and spotted with purple. Fruit is an obovoid, angled capsule.
Amerindians, who relished the bulbs, called the plant "rice-root." This is perhaps a better common name, as several well-spotted true lilies (genus Lilium) exist. Several Fritillarias are very important in Chinese medicine for a variety of maladies, including cancer.
The plant is a member of the lily family (Liliaceae), which includes the edible onion, garlic, and asparagus, as well as the poisonous death camas and hellebore. The generic name stems from the Latin fritillus, "dice box," the term probably assigned by the early herbalists because of the spotted flowers. The specific epithet atropurpurea means "dark purple" in botanical Latin. Leopard lily was described for science in 1834 by the eminent English naturalist Thomas Nuttall, who visited what is now North Dakota in 1811.