Often small and understated, Columbia lilies (Lilium columbianum) nevertheless combine dramatic features that render them striking highlights of the subalpine meadows and woodlands. Each nodding bloom consists of six golden yellow or orange tepals (i.e., three petals and three sepals that are indistinguishable from one another). The buds often seem to greet the world one eye at a time as each tepal curls open individually. The tepals reflex completely backward onto themselves at about their midpoint, creating a tube-like corolla around the ovary and exposing the stamens and stigma to maximum opportunity for pollination. Deep red spots scatter irregularly across the throat and may extend down approximately two-thirds of each tepal. (Given their spots, Columbia lilies are also one of many lily species collectively called “tiger lilies,” but has anyone ever seen a spotted tiger?) Viewed from the rear, the recurved tepals often form intricate patterns, from perfect pinwheels or pretzel-like twists. On the front, the exerted stamens splay about the stigma and bear pollen in a deep, complementary cinnabar shade.
Like all true lilies, Columbia lilies grow from bulbs consisting of narrow, overlapping, succulent scales. In addition to sexual reproduction by seed, Columbia lilies also reproduce asexually by means of bulblets that sprout from base of the main bulb and are clones of the parent plant. Above ground, each bulb produces a single, unbranched stem that terminates in its inflorescence. Depending on growing conditions and bulb size, Columbia lilies may range in height from less than one foot/0.30 meters to four feet/1.20 meters or more. The lance-like leaves cluster in whorls around the stem’s lower portion, but scatter individually along the upper stem and continue as smaller bracts at the base of each bud. Flowers are borne on a raceme, or, from small, individual stems along a main stalk, although plants with only a small number of blooms may bear them in an umbel, with all branching from the same point. They bear from one to ten or more individual blooms, again, depending on growing conditions and bulb size. In Western Washington woodlands, it is common to find slender wands of Columbia lilies tipped with lone, nodding blooms. After pollination, the ovaries of the once bowed blossoms swell and point upward, as in the accompanying photo. These club-shaped capsules eventually dry and pop open to spill the seeds of the next generation.
Columbia lilies are true Pacific Northwesterners, ranging from British Columbia south to northern California and east into northern Idaho and Montana. Look for them in open woodlands and subalpine meadows (as in the accompanying photo) throughout the Vancouver Island, Olympic, Cascade, and northern Sierra Nevada mountains, east into the Columbia Mountains, and on the Salish Sea islands. Although tolerant of a range of conditions, Columbia lilies prefer partial shade and thus are often found on forest fringes and in seral plant communities in transition from ecological disturbances (e.g., fire, logging, road construction, etc.). Their bloom season extends from late spring through late summer, given the range of elevations at which they occur.
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© 2023 Anthony Colburn. Images may not be used or reproduced in any form without express written consent.