Photo by Melody

Calochortus, the Mariposa Lilies

By Kelli Kallenborn (KelliApril 20, 2012

The Bible refers to "lilies of the field"[1]. If this is a reference to an exact species, the meaning has been lost. Experts say that perhaps the 'lily' is an anemone or crocus. Maybe so, but the plant that comes to mind for me is the mariposa lily. Although these North American natives cannot be the biblical lilies of the field, "even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these".

Gardening picture

The genus Calochortus is found from southern British Columbia and Alberta to Mexico and Guatemala and from the Pacific Coast to the Dakotas.  Mariposa lily is the common name for many of the species with tulip-like flowers.  Mariposa is Spanish for butterfly, and this is descriptive of the bold patterns and delicate form of many of the species.  Calochortus means "beautiful grass" and is a reference to the grass-like foliage of all of the members.  The majority of species are found in California.  Some are rare. 


The sego lily, Calochortus nuttallii, is the state flower of Utah. It received this honor because bulbs of the plant saved early settlers from starvation after crickets ate their crops. Native Americans have long appreciated Calochortus bulbs as a food source.

Photo by Cory Maylett, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Mariposa lily flowers are bowl- or cup-shaped, and like all Liliaceae members, have three-fold symmetry.  Each fan-shaped petal has a small spot near the base called a gland.  This is the nectary.  The gland is often depressed and surrounded by hairs called trichomes.  Flower colors range from white to yellow to orange and from pale pink to lavender.  Often the petals have bold markings in contrasting shades of yellow, brown, purple, or black.  The trichomes may also be of a contrasting color.  Some species even have colorful anthers.  The photographs in the article give just a small sampling of the variety in the genus.  Many species are highly variable in color or markings.  The thumbnail photo shows one of the highly variable species, the Plummer's mariposa lily, Calochortus plummerae.  The color of the petals can vary from white to pink to lavender and the base of the petals can vary from white to purple. 


Desert mariposa lily, Calochortus kennedyi

Photo is public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Mariposa lilies are wildflowers found in chaparral, grasslands, deserts, and open forests.  Each bulb produces one basal leaf and there may be additional leaves on the flower stem, depending on the species.  There can be more than one blossom per stem but this varies with the individual species and growing conditions.  The seed capsules produce abundant seeds.  Some mariposa lilies are considered fire-followers.  The blooms can be literally hundreds of times more abundant in the years immediately following a wildfire

Mariposa lily corms can be bought from bulb specialists but they are not often grown in gardens.  They are very exacting about their cultural requirements.  Most species are full-sun plants.  In general they need well-drained soil with adequate moisture during the spring growing season but a totally dry summer and fall dormant season.  I've have tried growing mariposa lilies but with little success even though I live in mariposa lily country.  The couple times that I did get the bulbs to bloom, they never returned in subsequent years.  I suspect that they do not like my clay soil, but I have had no luck at all growing them in pots either.  For me, mariposa lilies will have to remain wildland treats and that is all right.  It makes them more special if I cannot grow them.  If you decide to try growing mariposa lilies, be sure to get your bulbs from a dealer who sells cultivated stock, not wild-collected bulbs.  Some species are very rare and need to protected. Mariposa lilies can also be grown from seed.  It takes from three to five years for the corm to get to blooming size [2].

Mariposa lilies are favorites of wildflower enthusiasts in the American West.  These showy flowers attract attention with their bright colors, bold patterns, and graceful shape.  They cannot be the biblical lilies of the field, for mariposa lilies are not native to the Holy Land, but surely even King Solomon's jeweled, embroidered, and fur-trimmed robes were not as elegant as these botanical treasures. 

Image Image Image Image 

 Catalina mariposa lily, Calochortus catalinae

 Weed's mariposa lily, Calochortus weedii

 Shy mariposa lily, Calochortus invenustus

 Yellow mariposa lily, Calochortus clavatus

 Image Image Image Image

 Lilac mariposa lily, Calochortus splendens

 Superb mariposa lily, Calochortus supurbus

Photo by Toedrifter, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

 Alkali mariposa lily, Calochortus striatus

Photo by Stan Shebs, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

 Butterfly mariposa lily, Calochortus venustus

Photo is public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

[1] Matthew 6:28-29.

[2] Schmidt, Marjorie G., Growing California Native Plants, University of California Press, 1980, pp. 174-175.

  About Kelli Kallenborn  
Kelli KallenbornKelli has lived in California for 25 years and really enjoys the climate and all of the varied natural ecosystems. You can also follow Kelli on Google.

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