• Jeff Hansen

Fawnlilies — an early sign of spring at Ritchie Cemetery

There are two species of fawnlilies found at Ritchie Cemetery: the midland (Erythronium mesochorum), and the white (Erythronium albidum). Both are native to Kansas.


Midland Fawnlily

Fawnlilies are one of the first plants to bloom each spring (March to April) in northeast Kansas. They are members of the Erythronium genus. The origin of the genus name is derived from the Greek eruthros, which means red. The name was given to the red flowering dogtooth violet (E. dens-canis) found in Europe. This brings us to the common names given to various members of the genus. Names include the dogtooth violet, troutlily, fawnlily, and even avalanche-lily. The Erythronium genus is a member of the Lily family (Liliaceae). It is a relatively large genus in North America. The range maps of each species can be found on Erythronium BONAP maps.


I often consult the Integrated Taxonomic Information System for common names as well as scientific names. Their common name for the Erythronium genus is fawnlily. You can see the ITIS information of the genus at ITIS: Erythronium.


There is not just one species of fawnlily at Ritchie Cemetery, but two. Both are native to northeast Kansas. They are relatively easy to distinguish by looking at their leaves and growth habits. Both species have an underground corm (like a tuber). Non-flowering plants have one leaf and flowering individuals have two. Each flower has six tepals. Tepals are petals and sepals that are not easily distinguished from one another. In reality, there are three petals and three sepals. The fruit is a large oval three-part capsule containing about 10 seeds. Plants do not get much taller than 6 inches. By the heat of summer there will be no trace of the leaves of the plants and they become dormant until the next spring.


Midland Fawnlily


The first species to bloom is the midland fawnlily (E. mesochorum). The species name roughly translates to “middle place” and refers to their distribution in the middle of the U.S., see E. mesochorum BONAP map.


This species is a solitary plant that doesn’t form large dense colonies of leaves and plants. The flowers are generally lavender to white in color. The leaves have very little to no mottling on them and have a glaucous coating (it’s waxy gray and can be rubbed off). The mature fruit can be seen lying on the ground. It is also called the prairie trout lily as that is its general habitat. But it can also be found in dry open woods. Interestingly, one place it does well is at prairie cemeteries where it is encouraged by mowing. But timely herbicide use will eliminate it. This is the most plentiful species at the Ritchie Cemetery, being found in the open areas.


Midland Fawnlily



White Fawnlily


The later blooming species is the white fawnlily (E. albidum). The species name translates to white, the color of the flowers. It has a wider distribution over much of the eastern U.S., see E. albidum BONAP map.


Unlike the midland fawnlily, this species forms huge colonies of mostly single leafed plants. Only a few of the plants flower and they will have two leaves. Its preferred habitat is rich moist woodlands. It is easily recognized by its mottled leaves covered in brownish purple spots, which resemble the spots on a trout or a fawn. The leaves also have a glaucous coating. The fruit of this species is held upright at maturity unlike the midland fawnlily. This species seems to be less common at Ritchie but that may be because its habitat has been invaded by the invasive Amur honeysuckle. As the honeysuckle is removed, the white fawnlily should increase in number. Look for it deeper in the woods at the cemetery.


White Fawnlily



The presence of both species of fawnlilies at Ritchie Cemetery is a testament to the care or lack of care that the cemetery has received since it was founded. I am sure these species were found at the site at the time Topeka was founded. Due to the lack of summer prairie wildflowers at Ritchie Cemetery, I believe herbicides were used at the cemetery at some point. The fawnlilies wouldn’t have been affected as it was likely applied when they were dormant.


I encourage you to seek out the fawnlilies of Ritchie Cemetery before they become dormant and are no longer visible.