Plant of the Week
Yellow Avalanche-lily (Erythronium grandiflorum)
By Edna Rey-Vizgirdas, Forest Botanist, Boise National Forest
As winter loosens its chill, the cheerful flowers of yellow avalanche-lily help welcome spring to foothills and mountain regions in the West. Yellow avalanche-lily is sometimes called “dogtooth violet” although it’s not a violet. This species is also known as “glacier lily” since it often appears at the edge of receding snow banks. Other common names include trout lily, snow lily, and fawn lily.
This species is found from British Columbia to California; east to Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. In late spring and early summer, depending on the elevation, mountain meadows can be carpeted by glacier lily’s beautiful lemon yellow blossoms.
Yellow avalanche-lily was collected during the Lewis and Clark Expedition along the Lolo Trail in Idaho in June 1806. In 1813, Frederick Pursh gave it its scientific name, Erythronium grandiflorum. The genus name comes from erythro, Greek for "red," which refers to the color of the European species. Grandiflorum means "large flower." Its relative size is enhanced by the slender stem arcing above the two bright green basal leaves.
Like many of its relatives in the Lily Family, the petals and sepals look alike and are called tepals. The yellow flowers consist of six petal-like tepals that curve back, exposing the stigma and white, red, or yellow stamens. One to three showy flowers hang at end of a graceful stalk that can reach up to 12 inches in height.
Yellow avalanche-lily is a favorite food of grizzly bears and black bears, which use their claws to comb through the soil unearthing the nutritious bulbs. Elk and deer relish the foliage. Native Americans would harvest the bulbs which could be boiled or dried and used in stews or other dishes.
Meriwether Lewis mentioned this species numerous times in his journal in spring 1806. This may be because he thought that yellow avalanche-lily could be used as a “botanical calendar” to help track the onset of spring - similar to the closely related species that grows in Lewis’ native Virginia, Eastern trout-lily (E. americanum).
Indeed, yellow avalanche-lily is one of the first flowers to bloom after snowmelt. Its eye-catching flowers are especially striking against a backdrop of snow or bare ground. After a particularly long winter, it is easy for many of us to get “spring fever”. Wherever you find it on our National Forests, yellow avalanche-lily is a delight for early season hikers and photographers.