Plant of the Week

Leucocrinum montanum range map.
Leucocrinum montanum range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Leucocrinum montanum.
Leucocrinum montanum in flower from Bryce Canyon National Park, Garfield County, Utah. Photo © Bill Gray.

Leucocrinum montanum.
Leucocrinum montanum in flower, Montana. Photo © Peter Lesica.

Leucocrinum montanum.
Leucocrinum montanum in flower, Montana. Photo © Peter Lesica.

Leucocrinum montanum.
Leucocrinum montanum, from Badlands National Park, South Dakota. Photo © Jennifer Whipple.

Star Lily (Leucocrinum montanum)

By Walter Fertig

The Star lily (Leucocrinum montanum) can easily be recognized by its star-shaped white flowers with elongate tubes that appear to grow directly from the center of a basal rosette of narrow, grass-like leaves. The flowers seem to have six petals, but technically these are a set of three petals alternating with three sepals. When petals and sepals are identical, taxonomists refer to them as tepals (a clever anagram of the word petal). Many members of the lily family and their relatives are characterized by tepals, including onions (Allium), camas (Camassia), lilies (Lilium) and hyacinths (Hyacinthinus).

Star lily is the only species in the entire genus Leucocrinum and is restricted to prairies, sagebrush grasslands, deserts, and mountain meadows of western North America from Oregon to South Dakota south to California, Utah, and New Mexico. Traditionally, Star lily has been placed in the lily family (Liliaceae), but over the past decades, taxonomists have been busily deconstructing this amorphous group into numerous, more natural families. Unfortunately, a consensus of views has not yet emerged. Frequently, Leucocrinum is placed in the Anthericaceae, a family with mostly tropical species. More recently, genetic studies suggest a strong relationship with the agaves and yuccas in the Agavaceae. Future research may place the species elsewhere.

One of the more unusual traits of the Star lily is that once flowering is completed in late May or June, the entire aboveground part of the plant withers away. Only the ripened fruit pod remains and is buried underground among the fleshy, finger-like roots. How these fruits distribute their black seeds is something of a mystery. Some authors have suggested that the seeds are released when the sandy or loose rocky surrounding soil weathers away, while others believe the seeds are literally pushed out of the soil by new bud growth the following year. South Dakota botanist Dave Ode offers a more likely explanation in his recent book Dakota Flora:ants or other insects find the buried seeds and transport them away from the parent plant, replanting them elsewhere in the process.

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