Calochortus -- TOW

Mary Sue Ittner
Sat, 06 Nov 2004 07:02:21 PST
Dear All,

Diana Chapman has kindly taken the time to provide an introduction for 
Calochortus so we can discuss it in the week or more ahead. Diana will be 
taking over the editorship of Mariposa, the journal of the Calochortus 
Society, and is no doubt working on her first issue and is very busy so I 
really appreciate her doing this for me and all of us. Please share your 
experiences growing Calochortus and ask questions you have about this genus 
so we can have a good discussion.

Mary Sue


Calochortus are truly the treasures of the American West, for while many 
other genera of bulbous plants native to the west are also beautiful and 
well worth growing, the variety of form and color found in this large genus 
is unequalled.  Fortunately, these lovely bulbs are becoming better known, 
and a few of the easier species are available from commerce.

The taxonomy of the genus can be somewhat confusing, and there are areas 
that are in desperate need of revision.  For ease of identification, I will 
give the following more descriptive approach, grouping the genus into three 
main categories:  Mariposa lilies; Star Tulips and Cat's Ears; and Fairy 

Mariposa lilies:  These are tall graceful plants with large upward-facing 
bowl-shaped flowers that come in a spectacular range of colors.  Many 
species have intricate petals markings that add great beauty to the 
flower.  These are largely bulbs of lowland grasslands, although some can 
also be found at higher elevations and in desert regions.

Many Mariposa Lilies are adaptable and easy to grow, while the high 
elevation ones are much more challenging.

Calochortus luteus is one of the easiest to grow, and is available from the 
supplier of Dutch grown bulbs.  This is a widespread Calochortus of the 
foothills of California's northern mountain ranges.  It has large, 
brilliant yellow upward-facing flowers, variably marked inside with 
chestnut brown.

Calochortus superbus is likewise, very widespread, its range often 
overlapping C. luteus.  It has large white flowers, sometimes washed with 
purple on the outside of the petals.  It, too, is easy to grow.

Calochortus vestae is a magnificent north Coast Range species with huge 
flowers appearing late in the spring, white tinted and streaked purple, and 
with beautiful inner markings.  There are populations that have pink 
flowers, and even some of a deep purple.

Calochortus venustus is everyone's favorite, since it has the greatest 
color range of any Calochortus species.  The large bowl-shaped flowers 
range from purest white to all shades of yellow, pink, purple and the 
deepest crimson.  Most of the Mariposas have a basal spot to the petal, but 
C. venustus usually has another spot, known as an echo spot, on the outer 
inner petal that is often beautifully colored.  C. venustus is found in the 
Sierra Nevada and the Coast Ranges, with the more colorful ones 
concentrated in southern California.

The challenging Mariposas include those of the desert, such as C. kennedyi, 
with its gorgeous vermilion flowers, and the high altitude ones, such as C. 
gunnisonii from the Rocky Mountains.  They can be grown, but take 
dedication and experience to succeed.

Star Tulips and Cat's Ears:  These are usually small plants with petals 
that are either smooth (Star Tulips), or densely covered with silky hairs 
(Cat's Ears).  Whoever coined the common name "Cat's Ears" could not have 
chosen a more suitable term, since the hairy petals look exactly like the 
inside of a cat's ear.  Many of these species grow at higher elevations 
than Mariposas, although C. tolmiei can be found on coastal bluffs that 
drop down to the surf, as well as at elevations up to 5,000 ft. in the 
Coast Ranges and Sierra Nevada.

Calochortus tolmiei is the most charming of all the Cat's Ears, with its 
neat petals completely covered in silky hairs.  It is a wonderful 
rock-garden plant, and comes in a range of colors from white to lavender, 
pink or purple, often with deep purple or wine colored centers.

Calochortus monophyllus is found growing in the shade of shrubby thickets 
in the Sierra Nevada.  It is deep yellow, often with a dark red basal spot 
to the petal.

Calochortus uniflorus is one of the Star Tulips with petals that are 
largely hairless, having satiny pink petals and deep lavender 
anthers.  This species is one of the easiest to grow, and also has a long 
bloom season.  Other Star Tulips include C. umbellatus, C. nudus and C. 

Fairy Lanterns (or Globe Tulips):  The pendulous, globe-shaped blooms of 
this group hang down from the stem, quite unlike other species.  These 
lovely plants are usually found growing in light shade under shrubs and 
trees on sloping banks.

Calochortus albus, found in the Coast Ranges, as well as the Sierra Nevada, 
is a translucent pearly white, although red varieties are also found, the 
red hue varying from rusty tints to a beautiful deep purple-red.  Each 
arching stem may carry as many as ten or more flowers.

Calochortus amabilis from the Coast Ranges is bright yellow, and is 
commonly known as "Diogenes' Lantern".

Calochortus amoenus is a most beautiful rose pink, and comes from the 
foothills of the central Sierra Nevada.

Growing Calochortus

Most Calochortus come from the Mediterranean-type climate of the western 
USA, growing during the cool rainy winter, then blooming in the spring and 
going dormant in summer, when they must be kept dry.  The exceptions are 
the high altitude species which are dormant in winter, emerging soon after 
the snow melts to bloom from mid to late summer.

Bulbs can be purchased from suppliers, and there are a few suppliers of 
wild-collected seed.  Most Calochortus are easy to grow from seed, the seed 
germinating very readily without any kind of special 
treatment.  High-altitude species, however, do need a period of 
stratification, usually in a refrigerator, to simulate the cold conditions 
they would experience in nature.  Most seed should be sown in the Fall, 
coinciding with the commencement of the winter rains in California.  In 
regions with mild spring temperatures, sowing can occur up until January or 
even February, but in areas where spring temperatures can be warm the small 
seedlings can be forced to go dormant before the bulbs have developed 
sufficiently if they are sown too late.  The easier species can be sown and 
left outside sheltered from the most severe weather, while seed of 
high-altitude species can be placed in a ziplock bag with barely dampened 
vermiculite and left in the refrigerator until the seed starts to 
germinate, at which time they must be removed and sown as usual.  Seed that 
is stratified can take anywhere from two weeks to three or four months to 
germinate, depending upon the species.

Many of the easier Calochortus will mature and bloom in three years if 
grown well, while the high altitude species and desert species take longer.

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