Saturday, January 23

Plant of the Month: Leopard Lily (Lilium pardalinum)

Along the rivers and streams of the Santa Cruz Mountains, something special is happening. In moist areas sheltered from the blazing summer sun, a familiar face is making its annual appearance. Lilium pardalinum, the leopard lily, is blooming. 

The yearly appearance of these beautiful monocots is, to anyone with a remote sense of botanical appre-ciation, akin to the discovery of gold in Coloma to the early settlers. A fervent hunt ensues, rumors of flowering populations spreading like wildfire. Then the photos begin to appear – on digital cameras, blogs, the window at the visitor center. Just a glimpse of their naked, exposed inflorescence is enough to make even the most grizzled naturalist melt into a puddle of glee.
All this hubbub over a flower comes with good reason. Once abundant in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the leopard lilies have been loved (and collected) by so many for so long that they are now quite uncommon, if not rare. Growing from a rhizomatous underground bulb, this beauty is all too easy to excavate and transplant to a home garden.
The leopard lily’s common name is a point of confusion for some. Our local text, Plants of the Coast Redwood Region, refers to this species as the “Tiger Lily.” However, both the Jepson Manual and the USDA Plants database assign that common name to another more northerly-occurring species, L. columbianum, specifying the “Leopard Lily” as L. pardalinum.
Within the species itself occur five recognized subspecies, all morphologically similar but varying in their range and floral details. The leopard, Volmer’s, Shasta, Wiggin’s, and Pitkin Marsh lilies are all subspecies of L. pardalinum. Further complicating matters is the fact that these subspecies are intergrading, meaning they can hybridize where their ranges overlap. This can create a virtually limitless amount of genetic combinations, resulting in many minutely different flowers.
In one form or another, the leopard lily ranges from the coastal mountains west to the crest of the Sierra Nevada, and from Noble Canyon in San Diego County all the way to central Oregon. It prefers damp, shady locations, and as such is most often found growing on the banks of a stream or river. In the Santa Cruz Mountains, healthy populations exist along the more remote drainages such as Pescadero and Gazos Creeks. Here in Henry Cowell, the leopard lily shyly grows in select spots along the San Lorenzo River and tucked away in the folds of Fall Creek. 
A member of the Lily family (Liliaceae), the leopard lily is an erect annual growing up to 8 feet tall. The leaves are typically whorled along the lower stem and may be alternate closer to the flowering tips. When the flowers appear, they are pendant (drooping or hanging from the stem) and can occur solitarily or many per plant. The flowers themselves are unmistakable, and give this species both its name and implied beauty – six strongly recurved petals with the namesake brown spots give way to six brown-tipped stamens surrounding a 3-lobed stigma at the end of a long, arcing style. This beautiful inflorescence practically screams “pollinate me!”
In our area, flowers generally begin to appear in late June or early July, and by the middle of July are exploding with color. Then, all too soon, the hummingbirds and swallowtail butterflies have done their duties as pollinators and the flowers wilt and collapse. Out of the fertilized ovary will grow a smooth, dehiscent capsule which contains next year’s seeds.
The beauty and allure of the leopard lily is magnified not only by its scarcity, but also by its abbreviated appearance for only a few weeks each year. To see it in full bloom is a special treat, reserved for those who have the passion and the desire to go out and seek it. Good luck.

[originally published in Words of the Woods, the newsletter of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park - September 2009]

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