Our recent April showers have brought us some beautiful May flowers! We’ve been watching a plant growing on our hillsides since late winter, wondering what it would prove to be. It’s taken a very long time to reveal its true identity, but we now know these plants are Calochortus albus, commonly known as the White Globe Lily, Fairy Lantern, Indian Bells, or Alabaster Tulip.
Until now this plant had been quite an enigma. Every winter long, broad, glossy lanceolate leaves would emerge on some of our steep slopes, almost like giant blades of grass, and then by late spring they’d wither away. Each year nothing else seemed to happen.
However, this year, perhaps because we’ve had a much more normal winter weather pattern, promising long flower stalks were pushed above these mysterious blades.
The grass-like appearance of these plants in winter help to give this genus the name Calochortus, which is derived from the Greek kalos meaning beautiful, and chortus meaning grass.
Calochortus albus is a member of the Liliaceae (Lily) family, and is not only native to California, but its geographic distribution is limited to California. Relative to some of its Mariposa Lily relatives, the Fairy Lantern has a relatively broad range, and is found from the Sierra Nevada foothills, west to Central California, and south to the north Channel Islands, and into San Diego county. Plants are often found on exposed coastal bluffs, chaparral, and partly shaded forested areas and grassland. These plants tolerate serpentine and clay soil, although here they seem to distinctly prefer some of our rockier slopes, regardless as to whether they’re in full sun or part shade.
The pendant flowers, up to a dozen per stem, reportedly emerge between March to July, and this year the first blooms were noticed at the very end of April.
They are only now starting to bloom with any sense of profusion. It’s not clear if blooming year over year is variable here, or if perhaps the deer fence has helped to confer enough protection this year to allow them to bloom.
Not that some haven’t been damaged. These particular specimens are on a steep slope above the orchard, within the deer fence perimeter, and were devoured this last Friday night.
As there was no additional damage suggesting deer, and these particular lilies were close to the road, perhaps our rascally rabbits are responsible?
Additionally, this particular plant seems to have been a target of insect damage of some sort.
When not being devoured, the three flower petals of Calochortus albus are pure white to pink, and sparsely ciliate along the margin, overlapping at the tip to form the characteristic lantern shape of this species.
The sepals may be white, green or rosy red in color.
Some rare bulb nurseries do sell bulbs of this species, but Calochortus albus only grows in USDA zones 9 and 10. In colder climates it is recommended that C. albus is grown in a greenhouse. In its natural setting, Calochortus albus prefers fast draining soils, on steep slopes in full to partial sun. In cultivation, supplemental irrigation during the growing season is fine, but once the leaves begin to yellow, water should be withheld to ensure the bulbs have a chance to dry out.
Much like some of our other native flowers here, like the Two-Eyed Violets, or the wild Iris, Calochortus will go dormant in late summer. After the flowering stem sets seed, the plant will wither completely to the ground, but will re-emerge with the winter rains, hopefully to bloom again next spring.