Fremont’s Star Lily

Toxicoscordion fremontii

close up cluster of white and green Fremont's Star Lily

Fremont’s star lily (Toxicoscordion fremontii) is a west coast native that produces an attractive spike of cream colored flowers from an underground bulb. The occurrence of flowers in the Reserve, however, is sporadic as bulbs do not bloom every year.

Fremont’s star lily, together with several related plants, is also called death camas, since all parts of the plant contain a toxic alkaloid that some consider more potent than strychnine. Recent evidence suggests that the Lewis and Clark expedition accidentally ate death camas bulbs ground into a bread. This halted the entire expedition while the soldiers recovered.

Other Common Names:

Fremont's death camus

Description 4,23,27,35,59

Fremont’s star lily, or Fremont’s death camas, is a perennial herb that regrows each spring from an underground bulb. The leaves are linear and are primarily at the base of the plant. Lower leaves may be up to 16 inches (40 cm) long and 5/8 inches (1.6 cm) wide, folded up from the midlines and with minutely toothed margins. Smaller cauline leaves may be present.

Flowers are born in a branched cluster at the top of a single stem, which may reach three feet (1 m) in height, but ours are usually smaller. A flower cluster has one to a few short side branches, each with up to 20 flowers. Flowers open sequentially from the bottom upwards. A bloom is radially symmetrical up to 1/4 inch across (3 cm) with three sepals and three similar petals (together called tepals). Petals are white or cream with conspicuous parallel veins. Each vein ends in a swollen green nectary gland; glands together form a bright green eye near the center of the flower. The six stamens have broad-based filaments that taper toward the anther, often curving outward near the top. The single pistil has a superior, three-lobed, green ovary with three tapered styles with blunt stigmas. Styles are erect initially, arching outward after the pollen has been shed from the anthers. Blooms occur between February and May.1 and are most profuse in the year following a wildfire, declining over time thereafter.

The fruit is a three-lobed, three-chambered, green capsule, maturing to straw-colored. Each segment has a recurved terminal beak. Each chamber contains a stack of flattened seeds, totaling less than a dozen.

single Fremont's Star Lily with stamen and residual filaments
Fremont's Star Lily growing on trail side

Distribution 7,89

Fremont’s star lily is native to the west coast of North America from southwestern Oregon to northern Baja, California, mostly below 3000 feet. It tends to occupy open spaces in chaparral and sage scrub. The plant blooms primarily in the first few years after a fire.4,59

Fremont’s star lily is not abundant in the Reserve. Plants are usually at the edge of an open space, under the overhang of bordering shrubs, but the location of blooming plants is unpredictable.

Classification 2,41,143

Fremont’s star lily is a monocot angiosperm in the False-hellebore family (Melanthiaceae), a small family of six genera. For many years, Fremont’s star lily and a few closely related species were placed in the genus Zigadenus in the lily family (Liliaceae). In the 21st century, on the basis of phylogenetic studies, Zigadenus was moved from the lily family into the Melanthiacea which can be distinguished by having three separate or incompletely fused styles instead of one.2,143 The six California species of Zigadenus were then moved into a new genus, Toxicoscordion, leaving only a single species in Zigadenus, a species of the southeastern United States. The name of the new genus roughly translates to “poison garlic” 21 reflecting the high toxicity of all its species.291

Fremont’s star lily is the sole member of the false-hellebore family in the Reserve.48

Alternate Scientific Names:

Zigadenus fremontii, Anticlea fremontii

Jepson eFlora Taxon Page
two Fremont's Star lilies with buds
Fremont's Star Lily in bloom surrounded by yellow California Sun Cups


Fremont’s star lily is a geophyte, one of a group of herbaceous plants that have a storage organ (in this case a bulb) beneath the soil that allows it to survive unfavorable conditions for extended periods of time.341 Many geophytes developed in Mediterranean climates, presumably as an adaptation to the hot dry summers. Many have extended this adaptation to periodic wildfires. Thus, many geophytes are much more abundant after a fire. The degree to which a geophyte is dependent on fire is highly variable.

Fremont’s star lily appears to be at the more dependent extreme. Flowers are reported as being abundant only “within the first 5-10 years after a fire or other soil disturbance”;59 and “locally abundant especially in recently burned chemise”.4 “The Springs Fire of 2013 brought these flowers back to Point Magu State Park”.35

A nine-year study in the mountains north of Santa Barbara found that 90% of the plants in a recently burned area produced flowering stalks the following spring.14,344 The plants in an unburned area were as abundant and they were larger, with more foliage area, but less than 10% produced flowers. In the years following a burn, flowers decreased while total plant size increased. More surprising, the only viable seeds were produced the year following a fire. Although flowers were seen in unburned areas, they rarely, if ever set seeds. It appears as though post-fire reproduction of Fremont’s star lily is dependent on growth and carbohydrate storage during the period between fires. This strategy suggests that this plant is very long-lived.

green grassy Fremont's Star Lily without blooms
cluster of Fremont's Star Lily with buds
single mature Fremont's Star Lily

Human Uses

Bulbs of Fremont’s star lily and closely related plants are the only bulbs not eaten by the native Americans.344 All parts of star lily – and all other species formerly in the genus Zigadenus – are highly toxic. The reports of use in the ethnobotanical literature are almost invariably medicinal, occasionally ceremonial.282

The sole report of a southern California coastal tribe using Fremont’s star lily is that of the Chumash from the region of Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands.15 They cooked and mashed the bulb and used the preparation as a poultice for sores. Additionally, Chumash sorcerers gave small portions of the plant to people they wanted to kill. They died.

empty brown seed capsule of Fremont's Star Lily
single stalk of Fremont's Star lilies

Interesting Facts

Meriweather Lewis and William Clark are among the heroes of U.S. history. In 1803 Thomas Jefferson commissioned a select group of Army volunteers, the Corps of Discovery Expedition, under the command of Captain Lewis and Second Lieutenant Clark, to explore the newly purchased Louisiana Territory, and to find a practical route to the Pacific Ocean. Departing Saint Louis in May 1804, they entered the perilous Bitterroot Mountains in early September. This was a difficult crossing. When they descended from the mountains many days later, the men were exhausted, severely dehydrated and on the verge of starvation.

They spent several days camped near a band of Nez Perce Indians, who were wary but not hostile. The Indians gave them feasts of dried salmon, berries and cakes made from the blue camas bulbs, all of which the soldiers had eaten before. Shortly thereafter, many of the men, including Captain Lewis, fell violently ill with vomiting, debilitating diarrhea, and painful cramps that made breathing difficult. The westward journey of Lewis and Clark was delayed more than a week while the inflicted recovered.

Most historical reports attribute this illness to the change in diet, or to food-borne bacterial illness. Recent evidence, however, suggests that it was due to ingestion of death camas, probably inadvertently mixed into the blue camas cakes given to them by the Indians.27,56 No hostile intent was attributed to the Indians; the two species are very similar, and in late fall both plants are dormant. Mistaken identity was just one more hazard faced by the Indians and early explorers.

Fremont's STar Lily with six white petals and green pistils
Fremont's Star Lily growing on hillside
cluster of green and white Fremont's Star blooms and buds

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