Monday, June 17, 2013

Beautiful "Butterfly" Lilies

Mariposa lilies (c) John Ashley
An unusually large cluster of Mariposa lily flowers
When Mormon settlers began arriving en masse to the Great Salt Lake area in 1848, the crop plants brought along from eastern states didn't grow so well in dry, central Utah. Subsequent crop failures led the settlers towards some of the local wild plants eaten by the local Native Americans. This included the tulip-like bulb, or "corm," of the Mariposa lily (Calochortus spp.), which could be eaten roasted, boiled, or made into porridge.

A few years later, Mariposa lilies helped save the Mormon settlers from starvation a second time when a plague of crickets devoured the food crops that they had finally managed to grow. In thanks, one member of the genus (sego lily) became Utah's official state flower on March 18th, 1911.

We have seven native Mariposa lily species here in Montana, though a couple are quite restricted in their range, and one species has only been seen twice - including a museum specimen collected in 1941. There are currently 57 species recognized in 11 western states.

Each Mariposa lily flower has three petals and three sepals, ivory-white in Montana but varying in color in other states. Each plant grows a single grass-like leaf, which led to its genus name. Calochortus is comprised of the Latin words for "beautiful" (kalos) and "grass" (chortus). And the common name, Mariposa, is the Spanish word for "butterfly." So I like to combine cultures and think of these native flowers as our "beautiful butterfly lilies."