This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Resembles Calochortus Luteus: petals white or pale lilac, with a more or less conspicuous reddish spot at top, a brownish-yellow-bordered centre, and a brownish base; gland large, oblong, usually densely hairy, and surrounded by scattered hairs: capsule one to two and a half inches long. (Sereno Watson in Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1879. See also Alphonso Wood in Proceedings of Academy of Natural Sciences, of Philadelphia, 1868.)
PURSH, in his "Flora of North America," published in 1814, gave us the first knowledge of this beautiful genus of plants. In the preface he speaks of it as "a bulbous rush;" and in the body of the work it is described as a new genus, and named by him Calochortus - from two Greek words signifying "pretty grass." It must be remembered, however, that Pursh himself was never beyond the Mississippi, where alone the species forming this genus is found; but he became possessed of the specimens collected by Lewis and Clarke, in their celebrated expedition across the continent in 1804-5, and he incorporated the result of their labors in his work. In the case of this plant he could, therefore, know it only as a dried specimen; but even in this unfavorable condition we see, by the pretty name he gave it, how much its beauty struck him. But even in its fresh and living state the species he described was not equal in beauty to the one we now illustrate, which was discovered in southern California by David Douglas, the collector to the Royal Horticultural Society of London, who sent seeds of it to that body, which were raised in their garden about 1832, and described in the Transactions of the society a few years after by Mr. Bentham under the name of Calochortus vennstus, - that is to say, literally, the Calochortus which is as charming as Venus - the beautiful Calochortus. Many other species were discovered by Douglas and some have been added to the list since that time by subsequent explorers, till the list of known species, according to Mr. Watson's recent enumeration, now embraces thirty-two species; but not one of them has been able to dispute with this, the exclusive right to its specific name. It adds to its beauty the charm of variety, for no two of them are exactly alike in form or color. The three flowers on our plate are from three separate roots, given by Mr. Theodore Schuster of Brooklyn, New York, who received them from Verada county, California. These three, as we see, differ from one another. The lower one is nearly white in its ground color, and the spot on the petal is nearly triangular; the petals also are loose, and barely touch one another when expanded. The upper one is purple, and the spot is broadly oval, while the colors at the base are more penciled, and with less decided limits to their lines. The other flower is smaller, the petals overlap one another, the spot is much longer than wide, and all the colors are more distinctly outlined. Among European florists some of the most distinct forms have been selected and bear separate garden names. The beauty of its flower struck the original Mexican inhabitants of California, before that piece of territory became annexed to the United States; and it is from them we have the common name " Mariposa," which is said to mean "butterfly," and the plant is commonly called Mariposa Lily, or Butterfly flower.
The plant, of course, is not a lily, though belonging to the order Liliacea, of which the true Lily is the type. It may be remembered that Lilium has the sepals and petals nearly alike, so that it makes what botanists call a six-parted perianth. In our plant there are but three distinct petals, though looking through the divisions of the lower flower in our plate, we see by the spot on the interior of the small sepals and some other colors, that they are disposed to take on a true petaloid character as in Lilies; and the instance is useful as showing the student how genera are formed by suppression of parts in some instances, and their development in others. In the root we see another difference from true Lilies which have a scaly bulb, while the plant before us has a tunicated or coated one. In this respect it resembles the Tulip, from which, indeed, it differs little, except in the great difference between the size and development of petals and sepals.
The Tulip of the old world has made its mark in history and poetry. It has been taken as a type of gayety and splendor by those deep in floral emblems.
" Gay as the tulip in its starred bed glowing,
As clouds that curtain round the west at even, O'er earth a canopy of glory throwing,
And heralding the radiant path to heaven."
But if the Tulip of our gardens may be fairly suggestive of a beautiful sky in an autumn sunset, the picture may be better painted by the help of the numerous rich shades possessed by our Mariposa Lilies. Perhaps they may make as popular garden flowers and be as highly prized as the true Tulip has been, when their culture becomes fully understood; but that time has not come yet. When first introduced through Douglas, now nearly fifty years ago, the plants from the seed he sent were widely distributed, but they soon wholly disappeared. New importations of roots have been kept up continually since that time, but though the skill of English gardeners is world-renowned, it has not succeeded in keeping the roots sound but a few years. The "Gardeners' Magazine" for 1878 tells us that they are "reputably difficult to cultivate, through not taking necessary precautions;" and the "Garden" for 1876 observes that the species "rapidly disappear from English gardens." In the case of the writer of this chapter, the roots from which the drawings were made did not flower the second year, and by the third had disappeared altogether. It is said that in their native places of growth they are always found very deep in the ground. Under culture the new bulb forms from an upper portion of the stem as noted in our drawing, and this small beginning is all that the plant depends on for its growth the next year. It may be that deep planting in light soil might prevent this stem-formation of a little bulb, or so strengthen it as to make it equal in flowering ability to its parent of the former year.
The roots of this and other species supply the Indians with a favorite article of food. As the roots are small and are found only at some depth, the Indians must possess more industry in some respects than they often get credit for. They call these roots "Sego."
Calochortus vennustus is found only in southern California. A form found by Captain Gunnison in the Rocky mountains, on the Pacific Railroad explorations, was supposed by Torrey to be one of the forms of this species; but a better acquaintance with it led Mr. Watson to the knowledge that it was a distinct species, and he called it Calochortus Gunnisonii. The beautiful plate in Mr. Robinson's Garden, vol. 9, belongs to this species and not to the true Calochortus venustus as there stated.