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.
Stem about three-flowered; leaves convolute-acuminate, shorter than the slender peduncles; sepals oblong, pointed, and recurved at the apex, scarcely shorter than the petals, yellow; petals yellow, broadly cuneate, rounded at the apex, bearded across the base, a roundish, red spot near the middle; anthers as long as the filaments; capsule elliptical; May. (Prof. Wood, in Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences, 1868, p. 169.)
E have in Calochortus one of the most interesting genera of plants growing on the American continent. It was only in the beginning of the present century that the first species was discovered by Frederick Pursh, a Siberian botanist, who came to Philadelphia in 1799, and was gardener to W. Hamilton, whose grounds are now the Woodland's Cemetery of that city. Pursh was a very intelligent man, and made numerous excursions into various parts of the country. The plants collected by him during these excursions afterwards formed the foundation of his "Flora of North America," a work published in London in 1814, in which the genus Calochortus is first described. The species he discovered, C. clegans, was found, according to his statement, in what was then the great Louisiana Territory. No species has ever been seen growing wild this side of the Mississippi, the numerous ones that have been discovered since Pursh's time being native to the country between the Rocky Mountains and the shores of the Pacific. A few are found in Mexico, and others extend northward to Oregon. New species continue, at the date of this writing, to be discovered within the limits of the United States, so that the exact range of the genus is not yet determined.
Although Calochortus is exclusively American, it is yet not distantly connected with the tulip of the Old World, and is also closely related to the Erythrouium, Fritillaria, and some other .American genera, with which it unites in giving interest to the great tribe of Tulipeae. One striking difference from any of its allies, however, will be noted by the most casual observer. The flower-cup of the common tulip seems to be formed of six petals; but in reality, three of these apparent petals are sepals, for the flower is formed on a ternary plan. The sepals are, however, so petal-like that there seems to be no calyx in the ordinary sense of the term. In Calochortus, however, there is seen to be an approach to the general condition of a complete flower. The three outer leaves or sepals, although still colored somewhat as the petals are, as we see in our full-face view, Fig. 2, are so much smaller than the inner ones forming the corolla that no one would have any difficulty in at once deciding the distinctness of the two series of floral envelopes. This observation is particularly worthy of the attention of students interested in a comparison of structure; for with this separation of the calycine from the corolline system, we see that Calochortus approaches another order, of which our Tradcscantia, or Spider-wort, is a familiar example. The glaucous, sub-fleshy leaves of most of the species of the two families also somewhat resemble each other in character, and the tendency to the production of silky hairs in the stamens of Tradescantia finds some parallel in the tufty hairs often produced on the petals of Calochortus. These characters are, however, mere appearances, and would not weigh much in regular systematic botany; but they will be of some value to our readers, many of whom are interested in the general tendency of relationship, as well as in the more exact studies.
The name Calochortus is from the Greek kalos, pretty, and chortus, grass. The leaves of most of the species have a grassy appearance; and in view of the beautiful flowers on so grasslike a plant, when the real grasses have no such beauty, the name is a very appropriate one. It is to be regretted that the translation of this name, "Pretty-Grass," did not become part of the language of the people; but "Butterfly Weed," "Mariposa Lily," and "Wild Tulip" have become so common in California, that there seems to be hardly any chance for the plant ever to get a distinctive appellation of its own. In the hope, however, that Pretty-Grass may yet become popular, we shall use this name in our present chapter.
Calochortus luteus, the Yellow Pretty-Grass, was first discovered by Mr. Douglas, who, in 1831, collected in California for the Royal Horticultural Society; and in the society's garden at Chiswick, near London, it flowered about the year named.
As Professor Wood says, in the description we have quoted, it has generally three flowers on a stalk; but as it sometimes comes with but a single flower, it will serve a good purpose to illustrate a plant in that condition, as showing the range of variation. It will also be seen, by reference to the plate, that our plant varies in another particular from Prof. Wood's description, the red spot being, not in the middle, but rather lower down on the petals. Our drawing is from a cultivated specimen, brought from California by Mr. Edwin Lonsdale, of Germantown.
It has been a matter of surprise that so pretty a flower, introduced to Europe under the auspices of its leading horticultural society, should be so rarely met with in cultivation. But this is chiefly owing, perhaps, to the necessity of importing roots direct; for according to our experience in raising the plants from seed, it must often take many years to procure flowering bulbs in that way. Seeds that we have sown only made bulbs the size of grains of wheat the first season; and though these bulbs produced leaves annually, they had not much increased in size after several years. We have heard of one grower, who soon had flowering bulbs from seed, but we think this success must be rare. Another difficulty is this, that the roots do not seem to increase rapidly by offsets, as some bulbs do. The plant from which we took our drawing made but two small bulbs, much smaller than the original Californian root, and these came out at the points represented as two small swellings in the plate, from which it will be seen that they were on the stem rather than on a part of the old bulb.
Almost every traveller who goes through California in the late fall of the year writes to Eastern friends of the great beauty of the plains and foot-hills when glowing with the gold of the Mariposa Lilies, which we take to be the species we now illustrate. The phenomenon is especially noticed by 'those who go through the Sacramento Valley, where, to judge from all the accounts given, it seems to find itself the most completely at home. In cultivation it would probably not be early enough for our outdoor gardening; but it will be an excellent thing for pot-culture in windows or green-houses. In this respect it has one very great advantage. We have spoken of the connecting link between it and the Tradescantia, or Spiderwort; but it will not do to compare the endurance of the petals in the two flowers; for while the Spiderwort lasts only a few hours, the Yellow Pretty-Grass will endure for a long time. The flowers on the plant from which we took our drawing kept open a week, and other growers have even had a still more favorable experience. The editor of the "London Garden," July 1, 1876, says: "We have so long considered the Mariposa Lilies somewhat delicate and fragile, owing to seeing them till recently represented by very poor specimens, that we are agreeably surprised at finding they keep for a considerable time in water, and open their large, gay, yet delicately marked blooms freely. The ones before us are of a fine dazzling yellow color, like Calo-chortus venustus, but of the most dazzling yellow, with brownish-crimson pencillings and markings." We quote this because it evidently refers to the species we have now before us.
1. Bulb with complete plant and side view of flower.
2. Full-face view of flower.