Plant of the Week

Map of the United States showing states. States are colored green where the species may be found.
Range map of Butterfly Mariposa lily. States are colored green where the species may be found.

Butterfly Mariposa lily flower.
Butterfly Mariposa lily (Calochortus venustus). Photo by Beatrice F. Howitt, California Academy of Sciences (1999).

Butterfly Mariposa Lily (Calochortus venustus Dougl. ex Benth.)

To attentive hispanophones, the common name ‘butterfly mariposa lily’ might sound redundant. However, the lovely flower of this plant might call to mind the beauty of a butterfly not merely once, but repeatedly; an association renewed as often as the plant is seen. A duplication of compliments exists as well in the scientific name: Calo-chortus means ‘beautiful-grass’ in Greek (‘grass’ because of the long, slender grass-like leaves of the plant) and venustus means ‘charming’ or ‘lovely’ in Latin, the word being a derivative of the name of Venus, the Roman goddess of charm and loveliness.

This species is used for food by several indigenous Californian tribes, who are justly famous for their discovery of the rich underground food resources offered by the native vegetation of their respective homelands. Commonly using a fire-hardened piece of dense wood simply called a ‘digging stick,’ they would unearth the bulbs of butterfly mariposa lily and either eat them raw or cook them in various ways, e.g., boiling, roasting in ashes, or baking in an earthen oven. Some other species of this genus are edible. The famous Sego Lily of the intermountain region is one; Calochortus nuttallii is the state flower of Utah, for it provided food for the natives of the area, as well as the Mormon settlers who arrived there in the 19th century. It, too, is also quite beautiful when in flower.

California, to which state this flower is native, is particularly rich in Calochortus species. Although some species are common, many are rare, and listed by the Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region as ‘sensitive,’ or deserving of special attention and care. The genus pertains to the Lily family (Liliaceae): like lilies, mariposa-lilies have long, thin, parallel-veined leaves, flower parts in threes, and grow from bulbs. Other plants of the family include tulips and fritillaries.

C. venustus is “a truly stunning plant which blooms in a myriad of colors come springtime, with shades of pink, red, white, yellow, purple – all right next to each other.” The flower has three showy petals and three recurved, greenish sepals. The petals form a bell-shaped flower, and though highly variable in color, the petals are usually light-colored with a central dark reddish spot and a second, lighter reddish spot towards the petal’s apex. However, the petals can range in color from white to yellow to scarlet to purple; in order to correctly identify the species, more technical characteristics come into play, such as a square hairy nectary and bulblet-bearing stem. There are a few hairs at the base of the petal. By the time the plant flowers, the leaves have typically withered.

To find butterfly mariposa lily, one must go to California; there, either on the Sierra Nevada foothills or along the Coast Ranges from the Bay Area south to the San Gabriel Mountains, from 1,000 to 8,000 feet. It will be in sandy soil, probably of decomposed granite, in grasslands, foothill woodland, or yellow pine forest.

For More Information: PLANTS Profile - Calochortus venustus, Butterfly Mariposa lily

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