Butterfly Mariposa lilies photographed on Wind Wolves Preserve

(21st May 2005)

Mariposa Lily (Calochortus venustus) is a wildflower native to California. Out of the 67 different species of Mariposa lilies in the world, 45 of them are found in California, including twelve different species found throughout the Los Padres National Forest. Mariposa is the Spanish word for butterfly, referring to the ethereal quality of the petals and unique markings on the flowers.

It sprouts each year from an underground bulb that can support several flowers. The flowers bloom in late spring or early summer and have three colorful petals. In the fall, the flowers shed their seeds which germinate following winter rains. Several years may pass before a bulb reaches maturity and produces a flower.

The mariposa lily is capable of surviving in hot, dry conditions, often on rocky outcrops where other plants cannot grow. They thrive in harsh environments despite their delicate appearance.

It grows from a perennial bulb with a single grass-like stem up to 20 inches tall bearing 1 to 5 flowers.

The lilies can be quite variable in color...the darker red ones are likely to be the same species as the white ones.

The fact that the mariposa lily grows from a bulb gives it some interesting qualities, including the ability to survive wildfires. Because the bulb is buried deep enough underground, the plant can survive most fires even when its above-ground portion is burned. Following wildfires, these bulbs produce greater numbers of flowers than in average years, taking advantage of the nutrient-rich soil and the lack of competition from other plants. This trait has contributed to the success of the mariposa lily in fire-prone environments.

The bulbs of many species were eaten as a food source by Native Americans. They were also eaten by the Mormon settlers in Utah because of crop failures during the first few years of settlement in the Great Salt Lake Valley.

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Peter Gray
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