Article on Calochortus from LA Times

Lee Poulsen
Thu, 27 Apr 2006 10:53:20 PDT
There is a good, full page article in today's Los Angeles Times on  
Calochortus with mention of our Diana Chapman in it. It also has 3  
giant color photos of C. monophyllus, C. catalinae, and a third merely  
labeled "Pussy Ears".

--Lee Poulsen
Pasadena, California, USDA Zone 10a
 From the Los Angeles Times

Alluring but elusive charms

Rare and exquisite, calochortus has a reputation for being fussy.  
Coaxing the wildly varied shapes and colors to life may be a challenge,  
but the blooms reward the effort with dazzle.

  By Lili Singer
  Special to The Times

  April 27, 2006

  CALOCHORTUS may spend most of its life hidden underground, but when it  
finally emerges to stretch in the spring sun, it is nothing short of  
dazzling. Willowy stems rise to chalice-shaped blooms in lavender, deep  
red or perhaps yellow with flecks of mahogany. Daintier varieties pop  
up like minuscule tulips, their little cupped flowers encrusted with  
wispy hairs.

  Sure, daffodils and irises are lovely. But in the world of bulbs,  
calochortus is that rare, exquisite choice.

  "Even the name is euphonious and so beautiful," says ecologist Ileene  
Anderson. "Cal-oh-COR-tuhs" trills off her tongue. The flower's common  
names are equally enchanting: mariposa lily, globe tulip, fairy  

  Despite such obvious charms, the bulbs have a reputation for being  
hard to find and difficult to grow. The first problem is eased by the  
swelling interest in California native plants, including bulbs such as  
calochortus. This fall nurseries, public gardens and mailorder firms  
plan to offer an enticing array of calochortus bulbs, which aren't true  
bulbs but rather underground stem bases called corms.

  As for problem No. 2, Anderson offers: "Where they grow in nature will  
suggest where to put them."

  All 60 species hail from western North America, and most are native to  
California. The plant belongs to the lily family, though some botanists  
place it in its own family, Calochortaceae. It's fairly easy to  
distinguish the various types. The tallest ones, called tall mariposas,  
bear large, upright, chalice-shaped flowers. Their seedpods are long  
and slender.

  The rest are short plants with drooping, three-sectioned seedpods.  
Globe lilies and fairy lanterns have round, nodding flowers; the petals  
overlap to form a hollow sphere. Star tulips grow low and have cupped  
blossoms. Cat's ears and pussy ears are the most compact and have  
flowers lined with tiny hairs.

  Most types, particularly the tall mariposas, need full sun. Others,  
including globe lilies and fairy lanterns, prefer light shade. Good  
drainage is crucial for them all, but the real key to success is water  
— more precisely, the lack of it in summer. Water dormant bulbs in the  
hot months and they will rot.

  Of course, every rule has exceptions.

  "Summer rest is not mandatory for pink star tulip [C. uniflorus],"  
says horticulturist M. Nevin Smith, author of the calochortus section  
in the book "Wild Lilies, Irises and Grasses."

  Menifee gardener Sheldon Lisker has found that C. luteus 'Golden Orb,'  
a yellow mariposa lily cultivar from the Netherlands, accepts  
occasional summer water without turning to mush. Since 1994, Lisker has  
planted 12 calochortus species and cultivars on his 10 acres in the low  
rolling hills of southwest Riverside County.

  To improve drainage, Lisker amends his clayey soil with decomposed  
granite from his hillside. (Where drainage is hideous, berms and raised  
beds are alternatives.)

  He never feeds the plants, but he does mulch the soil surface with  
leaves from his garden. He waters most plantings only if winter rains  
are scarce.

  "I also plant deeper than recommended — at least 6 inches down,"  
Lisker says. "The bulbs need protection from summer heat, even in the  
shade of a tree."

  Deep burial also guards the bulbs from birds and rodents, especially  
gophers and voles.

  COME springtime, the results can be spectacular.

  "Once the bulbs 'take,' they come back," Lisker says. "But they may  
not come up every year. Last year, after the rains, they all came up."

  Interrupted flowering is not unusual, horticulturist Smith says. Wild  
calochortus, after all, is a rain- and fire-follower, well-suited to  
the whims of nature. Some years, a bulb may leaf out but not flower, or  
it may disappear for years then return, reinvigorated, for a  
jaw-dropping floral display.

  Lisker's patch of rose fairy lantern, C. amoenus, is enjoying last  
month's rain. "There must be 15 in bloom at once," he says. "They're  
breathtaking. And with just a leaf or two to get the motor going, the  
stems come up through the shrubs, then branch out and flower. So  

  "Calochortus" is derived from the Greek for "beautiful grass,"  
referring to the plant's sparse foliage — on a good year, no more than  
a few thin blades. The flowers are more impressive, with colors that  
run the gamut: white, pink, orange, purple, brown.

  As if splendid colors weren't enough, the inside of each "flower bowl"  
is embellished with blotches, lines and hairs — designs ostensibly  
meant to attract pollinators. The best way to identify calochortus is  
to examine the center of each flower bowl.

  "Calochortus have special glands — pads at the base of the petals —  
that make crystalline sugary stuff, not quite like nectar," says Paul  
Wilson, associate professor of biology at Cal State Northridge. The  
gland varies in size and shape among species, and the substance it  
creates attracts beetles, little bees and other insects.

  THE plants were cultivated by native tribes for food and dubbed  
mariposa ("butterfly") by the Spanish for their animated splendor, but  
Smith writes that almost half of the Golden State's native species are  
"rare, endangered, threatened or in decline." Major stressors include  
developers and indiscriminate bulb and flower collectors.

  Anderson, a Los Angeles ecologist with the Tucson-based Center for  
Biological Diversity, has had the "dubious opportunity" to salvage  
calochortus bulbs from development sites. She has tried transplanting  
the bulbs to similar environs, but results have been abysmal.

  As wild calochortus populations decline, however, new species are  
still being discovered. C. tiburonensis was found on a Marin County  
hillside, just yards from civilization. Smith describes it as "a little  
mouse-eared type," found on a headland popular for hiking.

  This year, the catalog for Telos Rare Bulbs in Ferndale, Calif., lists  
one type of unnamed cat's ears — deep purple with hairy petals — found  
recently by Telos owner Diana Chapman in an undisclosed Northern  
California location.

  "It may be a new species," she says. "The seeds are different."

  How fortunate for calochortus that some gardeners like "different" —  
and appreciate a challenge. No doubt, many bulbs will be planted in dry  
gardens this fall, will flower generously in spring and will sleep many  
summers in ground where they feel most at home.

Lili Singer can be reached at



  Local favorites

  Most types of calochortus insist on summer drought. The flowers do  
well in containers, which shield the bulbs from voles and gophers.  
(Avoid black plastic nursery pots, though. They bake the heat-sensitive  
bulbs.) Plant calochortus in the fall; bulbs will flower the following  
spring, but seedlings may not bloom for years. The species and  
cultivars listed below do well in Southern California, providing color  
from early spring into summer.

Globe lilies,

  star tulips

White fairy lantern: Calochortus albus. Also called white globe lily.  
White flowers with hints of red, purple or brown. Likes good drainage.

Rose fairy lantern: C. amoenus. Pink to purple.

Oakland star tulip: C. umbellatus. Cupped and white with purple  
markings. Short and dainty. An early bloomer.

Pink star tulip: C. uniflorus. Pink to soft lavender with fine hairs.  
Tolerates some summer water.

Tall mariposas

Catalina mariposa: C. catalinae. White with lavender pink. Good in  
moisture-retentive clay soil. Another early bloomer.

Club-haired mariposa: C. clavatus. Bright yellow. Grows in clay.

Yellow mariposa: C. luteus. Brilliant yellow on 2- to 3-foot stems.  
'Golden Orb' accepts some summer water. Late bloomer.

Splendid mariposa: C. splendens. Lavender pink with a purple spot at  
the base of each petal. Prefers rocky soils. 'Violet Queen' is a more  
adaptable cultivar. Late bloomer.

Butterfly mariposa: C. venustus. Also called white mariposa, but petals  
may be pink, yellow, rose or deep red with intricate markings.

Weed's mariposa: C. weedii. Not weedy at all. Dark yellow with mahogany  
flecks and yellow hairs. Accepts all soils but difficult to establish.  
Late bloomer.


Bulbs: Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, Claremont, (909) 625-8767, ; Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, Santa Barbara,  
(805) 682-4726, ; Telos Rare Bulbs, Ferndale, ; Far West Bulb Farm, Grass Valley, (530)  
272-4775, (mail-order only; no  
phone sales).

Seeds: Theodore Payne Foundation, Sun Valley, (818) 768-1802, ; Northwest Native Seed, 915 Davis Place  
S., Seattle, WA 98144 (mail only).

  — Lili Singer

Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times

More information about the pbs mailing list