Calochortus notes

Jane McGary
Sun, 02 Jun 2013 12:31:29 PDT
Early June is the time when many western North American bulbs flower. 
Most of the themids (Brodiaea and similar genera) appear now, along 
with many Allium species. The most interesting genus, however, is 
Calochortus. They are not widely regarded as garden plants, although 
a few species are sold commercially by Dutch producers. However, I've 
found that most Calochortus species can be grown well in northwestern 
Oregon, given overhead protection from excessive winter and spring 
rain. I used to have them in large, plunged clay pots, but three 
years ago I planted them in deep raised beds of coarse sand over clay 
loam, mulched with pea gravel. A few species receive a little summer 
water, and the rest are kept dry, though residual moisture from the 
ground rises up through the woven groundcloth at the bottom of the 
beds. Here are some notes on how different species have responded to 
this treatment. I hope this will encourage many of you to try these 
plants, even though the showiest species are tall and slender and 
need some support (in nature they grow among grasses and scrub). Most 
of them will flower from seed in four or five years, some even in 
three. The seed should be planted in early fall and the seedlings, 
which appear soon, kept from freezing over winter. Don't plant the 
seed thickly, because the seedlings are prone to damping off.
	The first to flower, now finished, are Calochortus uniflorus, 
Calochortus tolmiei, and Calochortus elegans. I enjoy an unusually 
marked form of the first sent me by Mary Sue Ittner, who found it 
near her home on the northern California coast. Typical C. uniflorus, 
one of the easiest species to grow, is sometimes sold under the name 
'Cupido'. I collected the seed of my C. tolmiei on a serpentine slope 
in southern Oregon. C. elegans is similar to it but shorter and with 
smaller flowers.
	Next in the sequence are two yellow-flowered species, tall 
Calochortus amabilis and short Calochortus monophyllus. C. amabilis 
comes from coastal northern California and I planted it where it 
receives ample water throughout the rainy seasons; it has widely 
branching stems with scores of pendent globe flowers. Calochortus 
monophyllus is in the "dry" bed but receives plenty of moisture 
during its early growing period. At the same time comes Calochortus 
albus, a tall species with pendent globe flowers; my only plant of it 
now is a typical white form from seed I collected in Mariposa County, 
but I used to have the reddish "sanguineus" form from Archibalds' 
seed, and would like to acquire it again if anyone grows it. Another 
"mid early" species is Calochortus umpquaensis from south central 
Oregon, which I purchased as a bulb from Telos Rare Bulbs; it has 
increased a little.
	Just now the big show comes from the Mariposa section, those that 
most resemble tulips. The most numerous plants in the collection are 
the many color forms of Calochortus venustus, ranging from white to 
deep crimson. Last year I tagged the stems for color and sent 
separate color forms to seed exchanges, but with cross-pollination it 
isn't certain what color the seedlings will be (good luck!). Also 
numerous is Calochortus splendens, an almost unmarked pink-lavender 
flower. We also see the extremely showy Calochortus vestae, including 
the "Kettenpom form" sold by Telos, and pale yellow to white 
Calochortus superbus. There are three of the five subspecies of the 
robust Calochortus clavatus, all with brilliant yellow flowers: 
subsp. gracilis always opens first; subsp. avius flowered here for 
the first time this morning; and subsp. clavatus, the largest of all, 
always opens a couple of weeks later. A color like no other is the 
deep orange of Calochortus kennedyi; here it produces quite tall 
stems, unlike many of the photos of it in its natural habitat, 
perhaps a response to lower light levels -- but I'm glad to have it 
even "not in character."
	At the same time a number of less familiar species are coming into 
flower. It was a surprise to see a well-budded stem on Calochortus 
palmeri, from seed sown only three years ago; the flowers are not 
showy, being almost unmarked light pink. Calochortus striatus, from a 
Ron Ratko seed collection, never flowered until freed from its pot, 
and has produced its light pink, finely striped flowers the past two 
springs; it is an endemic of alkali flats in the Nevada desert but 
grows here in a mildly acidic sand. Calochortus coxii is a very rare 
species from southern Oregon, a short plant with curious 
greenish-cream flowers that has done well for many years. Calochortus 
dunnii, another "BIO (botanical interest only)" species, flowered for 
the first time last year and has produced a tall stem this spring. 
Calochortus longebarbatus, from seed collected in southern Washington 
by the Leach Botanical Garden staff, has increased well and has a lot 
of lavender, "long-bearded" flowers open.
	The most exciting event occurred just this morning -- the first time 
I've seen the flower of Calochortus tiburonensis. I was given seed of 
cultivated plants by a Bay Area grower some years ago and raised two 
plants, one of which is flowering this year. I was dubious about 
their identity because the reference book "Calochortus" by Gerritsen 
and Parsons describes the leaves as glaucous, and mine have dark 
green, shiny leaves with reddish bases. However, the flower is 
exactly as described. This species is a very rare, narrow endemic 
from Marin County, California, where its historic range has largely 
been covered by development.
	Even after these are past, there will be more species: the bizarre 
Calochortus obispoensis, showy Calochortus weedii, strangely 
beautiful Calochortus plummerae, and the plain but pleasing 
Calochortus howellii and Calochortus bruneaunis.
	Finally, in the course of the move I lost one of my favorites, 
Calochortus amoenus. If anyone has seed I would be very grateful for 
some, and can offer plenty in exchange.

Jane McGary
Portland, Oregon, USA

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