Its silky white petals and gentle, chalice-shaped features impress us with their gentle grace and mellifluous receptivity. The Mariposa Lily has spare, yet elegant, elongated leaves. Its shallow roots harbor a tiny bulb barely attached to the rocky soil (about 1 cm across). Deep in the interior of its bowl-shaped corolla are distinctive yellow and purple markings that suggest butterfly wings. The aptly named Mariposa does indeed strike us as a butterfly, with sheer silky petals like wings, softly alighting on earth in the heights of alpine grandeur.
Yet, the Mariposa Lily lives in the midst of a striking contradiction. Its virginal purity is married to a harsh, rocky environment with little water or soil to sustain its growth. It seems a miracle that a flower so delicate and receptive could live in such an intense environment, yet it is exactly here that the Mariposa flourishes with astonishing abundance! This is the very quality that the Mariposa Lily brings as a healing balm, imparting a nurturing essence that draws the soul into a deep interior space like the chalice of the flower itself. It is a quality of being held or enfolded in a kind of maternal embrace, allowing the soul to feel nurtured in the arms of a higher being, as a child does in its mothers arms.
Sagebrush Mariposa Lily
This erect flowering herb grows from 20-50 centimeters tall, and produces 1 – 3 inflorescences from an underground ovoid bulb. The flowers of this plant are often soft white to lavender in color, with a distinct three-petal pattern.
Trimodal size distribution ranging from 5-40 microns, with an average size of 23 microns. Large granules are ovoid with transverse crack at eccentric hilum and visible lamellae. Eccentric cross with even bending arms. Medium granules are spherical, with central depression; eccentric cross with even bending arms. Small are spherical with centric to slightly eccentric cross.
Calochortus macrocarpus can be distinguished from other common species of Calochortus by its distinctive purple coloration. It can be distinguished from C. flexuosus by the erect stalk and leaves, C. flexuosus has a wiry, bent appearance. C. bruneaunis and C. nuttallii are further distinguished by the circular maroon colored gland with a half-moon shaped maroon band above that appears near the base of the petals.
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Calochortus, the Mariposa Lilies
Mariposa lilies are favorites of wildflower enthusiasts in the American West. These showy flowers attract attention with their bright colors, bold patterns, and graceful shape. They cannot be the biblical lilies of the field, for mariposa lilies are not native to the Holy Land, but surely even King Solomon’s jeweled, embroidered, and fur-trimmed robes were not as elegant as these botanical treasures.
Catalina mariposa lily, Calochortus catalinae
Weed’s mariposa lily, Calochortus weedii
Shy mariposa lily, Calochortus invenustus
Yellow mariposa lily, Calochortus clavatus
Lilac mariposa lily, Calochortus splendens
Superb mariposa lily, Calochortus supurbus
Photo by Toedrifter, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Alkali mariposa lily, Calochortus striatus
Photo by Stan Shebs, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Butterfly mariposa lily, Calochortus venustus
Photo is public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Schmidt, Marjorie G., Growing California Native Plants, University of California Press, 1980, pp. 174-175.
About Butterfly Mariposa (Calochortus venustus) 2 Nurseries Carry This Plant
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Calochortus venustus is a species of flowering plant in the lily family known by the common name butterfly mariposa lily. It is endemic to California, where it can be found in the sandy soils of a number of habitats in the mountains and foothills in the central part of the state. It is a perennial herb producing a branching stem 10 to 60 centimeters tall. There is a basal leaf up to 20 centimeters long which withers by the time the plant blooms. The flower cluster is a loose cluster of 1 to 6 erect, bell-shaped flowers. The flowers are variable in size and color pattern, though white is the most common color. They are often showy and intricately patterned. They generally have three curving sepals 2 or 3 centimeters long and three oval-shaped, clawed petals up to 5 centimeters long. The petals may be a variety of colors from white to pale pink or purple to bright red or orange, and sport a large dark central blotch and a smaller, paler blotch above. The fruit is an angled capsule 5 or 6 centimeters long. Although they tend to grow singly in the wild, they have more visual impact when massed in the garden. This plant needs summer dormancy, so withhold water after it has finished blooming. Plant Description Plant Type Perennial herb
Size 0.33 – 2 ft tall
0.5 ft wide
Form Upright Columnar
Dormancy Summer Deciduous
Flower Color Cream, Lavender, Orange, Pink, Purple, Red, White
Flowering Season Spring
Wildlife Supported Numerous insects are attracted to the flowers
Butterflies & moths hosted ( 1 likely * ) SHOW ALL *Orange Tortrix Moth Argyrotaenia franciscanaArgyrotaenia franciscana
Landscaping Information Sun Full Sun, Part Shade
Moisture Very Low
Summer Irrigation Never irrigate once established
Cold Tolerance Tolerates cold to -10° F
Soil Drainage Fast, Medium, Slow
Soil Description Tolerates clay but prefers fast draining soil. Soil PH: 5.0 – 8.0
Companion Plants Grassland species such as other Calochortus species, Allium species, Milkweeds (Asclepias species), Brodiaea species, Amole (Chlorogalum species), Dichelostemma species, Firtillaria species, various native grasses and various annual wildflowers
Propagation Seed propagation is very slow. Best results come from buying bulbs. For propagating by seed: No treatment.
Sunset Zones 1, 2, 3, 7*, 9, 14*, 15*, 16*, 17*, 18*, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24
Natural Setting Site Type Sandy (often granitic) soil in grassy places, typically hilly areas of the Coast Ranges and Sierra foothills
Climate Annual Precipitation: 6.0″ – 59.2″, Summer Precipitation: 0.14″ – 1.83″, Coldest Month: 28.1″ – 56.0″, Hottest Month: 53.0″ – 79.2″, Humidity: 0.59″ – 29.47″, Elevation: 3″ – 9077″
Alternative Names Common Names: Butterfly Mariposa Lily
Sources include: Wikipedia. All text shown in the “About” section of these pages is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. Plant observation data provided by the participants of the California Consortia of Herbaria, Sunset information provided by Jepson Flora Project. Propogation from seed information provided by the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden from “Seed Propagation of Native California Plants” by Dara E. Emery. Sources of plant photos include CalPhotos, Wikimedia Commons, and independent plant photographers who have agreed to share their images with Calscape. Other general sources of information include Calflora, CNPS Manual of Vegetation Online, Jepson Flora Project, Las Pilitas, Theodore Payne, Tree of Life, The Xerces Society, and information provided by CNPS volunteer editors, with special thanks to Don Rideout. Climate data used in creation of plant range maps is from PRISM Climate Group, Oregon State University, using 30 year (1981-2010) annual “normals” at an 800 meter spatial resolution.
Links: Jepson eFlora Taxon Page CalPhotos Wikipedia Calflora
What is so rare as a Tiburon mariposa lily?
Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis)
While looking for an answer to my own question, I discovered, to my surprise, that rarity in the animal and plant world is quite common. Conservation scientist Eric Dinerstein estimates that 75% of the species on earth are rare. The US Forest Service guesses that a third of the native plants in the U.S. can be considered rare. And we have no idea how many species science hasn’t yet named; those remaining are most likely rare, since large populations would have been identified by now. Some of these yet-to-be classified plants may be right at our feet: the tiny population of the Tiburon mariposa lily, in bustling suburban San Francisco, and a plant I consider to be pretty showy, was only ‘found’ and named in 1971.
Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis)
There are reasons. The main one is that it only grows on one serpentine outcrop on Ring Mountain, in Tiburon, California, and nowhere else on earth. I’ve written about serpentine and celebrated Ring Mountain; its mariposa lily is another thing that makes it special. One of the first Spanish land grants in this area, Ring Mountain and its environs were grazing land from 1834 until the 1960’s, when the remaining ranch land began to be sold to developers. I’m sure that the Coast Miwok tribe members, who were displaced by these land grants, knew and had a name for the Tiburon mariposa lily, which was both food and medicine for them. And I can imagine that the few cowboys who came to the top of the ridge to find stray cows would notice the flower but feel no need to find a name for it.
Oakland star tulip (Calochortus umbellatus)
As showy as the flower is up close, its modest height, single leaves close to the stem, and mottled flowers do blend in with its grassy, rocky surroundings. It can take some focusing to find them, even when they’re right in front of you. So it wasn’t until the land was being explored for preservation that the flower was ‘found,’ classified as a calochortus, and given its official scientific name: Calochortus tiburonensis. The species name comes from the Greek words ‘kalos’ and ‘chortus’: beautiful grass. Mariposa is the Spanish word for butterfly. There are lots of mariposa lilies in the west, over 70 species, 28 of them endemic to California. Two others grow on and around Ring Mountain: the also rare Oakland star tulip and the yellow mariposa lily.
Yellow mariposa lily (Calochortus luteus)
And there’s still more rarity: tiny, delicate Marin dwarf flax grows among the mariposa lilies on the serpentine, and Tiburon paintbrush grows on the next hill to the west. One subspecies of the otherwise not-rare jewel flower, the black Tiburon jewel flower, grows in a neighboring preserve, along with the rare Tiburon buckwheat. As long as a plant population can keep itself healthy and reproducing, rarity itself is not a threat. But, with the exception of the yellow mariposa lily, all the plants named here are considered endangered, defined as ‘a species in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.’ If your range is a few hundred square yards of rock, it’s easy to be threatened with extinction.
Marin dwarf flax (Hesperolinon congestum)
Why all this endangered rarity in one small area? In this case, serpentine is the first limiting factor. Any plant growing on it has to be adapted to its toxic qualities, but those skills enable survival, not abundance. So you start with a small population. Then, in the case of wealthy Tiburon, you build roads, houses, driveways, stores, tennis courts. Gardens and lawns are planted in dirt carted in to circumvent the toxicity in the soil. Even in the preserved areas, fire roads have to be built and maintained to protect the nearby houses, which disturbs the soil and opens it to a flood of opportunistic invaders, usually annual seeds that sprout quickly on small root systems, taking water, nutrients, and light from the slower natives. According to the U.S. Forest Service, nearly 20% of the plants on the endangered list got there because of invasive non-natives, and half of at-risk plants have been affected by them.
Black jewel flower (Streptanthus glandulosus, subspecies niger)
The more an environment changes from its original ecology, the fewer plants native to that place will be able to grow. And it’s not just the actual ground the plant is growing on. Pollinators like bees, birds, bats, beetles and butterflies need space for their own environment, which isn’t necessarily the same as the plants they pollinate. They may have come from a neighboring field, or upland woods, now houses or a shopping center. Animals and birds leave areas that are too cut up, which don’t allow them the contiguous space they need to feel safe when building nests and foraging for food. So the ancient, intricate relationships of animal—plant—place are severed.
While human activity does the bulk of this severing, natural forces have a role. Floods, fires, droughts, landslides, and insects can all come in forms devastating to small plant populations, rendering them unable to reestablish. And intrinsic qualities make a difference. The Tiburon mariposa lily’s seeds are too heavy to be wind borne, so they fall at the feet of the existing plants, replenishing the colony, but not increasing its area.
Tiburon buckwheat (Eriogonum caninum)
Despite all the threats, rare plants continue to bloom in Marin, which is in one of the few ‘rarity hotspots’ in the U.S. Because each individual plant’s numbers are low, there’s room for a variety of species, and the tasks of that ecological niche can be shared among them, along with their interdependent creatures, like bees, butterflies and beetles. One of the great glories of our planet is the wild abandon with which it has come up with species of animals, insects and plants. And we only know of 1.7 million of them! Of those, only a tiny percentage has been studied; we have no way of knowing how many more there are.
Given that abundance, the fact that 20,000 species are on the verge of extinction may not seem disastrous. But, if that rate continues, we could lose 75% of the earth’s species in the next few hundred years, a mass extinction on par with the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Many ecologists refer to our current rate of species loss as the sixth great extinction and fear it will only accelerate as the climate continues to change.
Tiburon paintbrush (Castilleja affinis, subspecies negecta)
Conservation scientists and organizations the world over are working on this challenge. There’s no one answer. All of the possible mitigators have a place: habitat preservation and restoration, nature-centered design, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, cradle-to-grave manufacturing practices, scientific literacy, etc. We need both a lot of grand schemes, and millions of small gestures that we can make in our own kitchens and gardens, in our neighborhood, in our local parks.
On my last visit to Ring Mountain I went early in the morning, to beat both the heat and the wind. As I was leaving, I met two of the county naturalists, setting up a table of snacks and literature. It was a volunteer day, and people were arriving to pull out one particular invasive thistle, which was new to the preserve, and very aggressive. When we look at the scale of the challenges we face, it’s hard to have faith that small actions will help. But, as I found out later, 7 people showed up and pulled 1500 invaders, a huge difference in a small preserve. Grand schemes are enacted exactly this way, stem by stem, person by person, each one of us carrying one of the delicate threads in the whole.
Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis)
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