Growing Calochortus

Calochortus (Mariposa lilies) have a reputation for being hard to grow, but I find the local ones fairly easy. At least easy to start, I haven’t had any bloom yet (that might take 5 years from planting), but my plants are alive…

Seed Propagation of Native California Plants (by Dara E. Emery, © 1988 The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden) says that nothing particular needs to be done to prepare Calochortus seeds for planting, and I have found that to be true.

Various sites on the web suggest that it takes 3-5 years to go from seed to bloom, so patience is required.

There are six species of Calochortus which are moderately common around Santa Barbara, these are:

C. albus
White fairy lantern

Mar-July
C. catalinae
Catalina Mariposa Lily

Feb-June
C. clavatus
Pale Yellow Mariposa Lily

Apr-June
C. fimbriatus
Late blooming Mariposa lily

June-Aug
C. splendens
Splendid Mariposa Lily

Apr-July
C. venustus
Butterfly Mariposa lily

Apr-June

The flowers are beautiful, and easy to distinguish. However by the time the seeds are ready for collection the flowers are gone. So how do you distinguish one seed pod from another?

The most obvious way is simply to remember where flowers bloomed in the spring and come back a month or two later and look for seedpods there.

This usually works fairly well, as most localities around SB only have one species blooming in them.

Some areas, however, have several species, and sometimes I find seedpods in an area where I’ve never seen blooms. It is often still possible to distinguish.

Most Calochortus seedpods open upwards, but C. albus is unique in having its pod open down. This pod is also the shortest, and fairly wide. The seeds themselves are small round balls (less than 1mm in diameter), while other species have flat circular flakes (perhaps 3mm in diameter and very thin). Because the pod opens downwards these seeds are the hardest to collect. If possible find them just before they dehisce…

The seedpods of C. catalinae are also short and stout, but point upward. (These can be found on Santa Cruz and Aliso trails).

Those of C. clavatus are long, stout at the base, but tapering toward the tip. (These can be found on Santa Cruz and Aliso trails).

Those of C. fimbriatus, C. splendens, and C. venustus are long and thin. I can’t distinguish between them by shape, but I do distinguish by habitat and location. C. fimbriatus is almost the only Calochortus to grow on the south side of the Santa Ynez mountains and any seedpod found around Camino Cielo is almost certainly it. C. venustus usually grows in grasslands (Forbush and Cottam meadows are good places to look for them). C. splendens is much rarer (locally) and I don’t have a good way to distinguish it from C. venustus save remembering where I saw it blooming in the spring (There’s a patch near where Blue Canyon trail hits the Santa Ynez river).

Seedpods
C. albus
White fairy lantern
C. catalinae
Catalina Mariposa Lily
C. clavatus
Pale Yellow Mariposa Lily
C. fimbriatus
Late blooming Mariposa lily
C. splendens
Splendid Mariposa Lily
C. venustus
Butterfly Mariposa lily

Seeds may be collected any time after the pods dehisce (except for C. albus). Because most of the pods open upwards, seeds can remain inside for months. Indeed, I have successfully collected and planted seeds from pods I found in December, but usually I collect about a month after the last blooms.

I generally fill a 4″x4″ plastic pot with potting soil, sprinkle about half a pods worth of seeds on top, then dust with a very thin layer of more potting soil and water heavily. I have planted any time from October-December and had small forbs pop up anywhere from a fortnight to two months later.

As might be expected, seeds collected and planted the same year do best, but older seeds will sprout (though at a smaller percentage and often later in the year).

Most seeds sprouted within a month (if planted in the rainy season), but older seeds might take twice as long.

Seedlings look rather unexpected (to me anyway). I had expected to see small basal-leaves when I first planted, but instead I got green threads the first year, which widened out the second, and by the third looked like normal basal leaves:
C. ¿splendens? at 6 weeks
These are either C. splendens or C. venustus. They were collected on Camuesa-Romero Rd. near Little Caliente Springs in July of 2016. They were planted on 17 Nov 2016. The first forb appeared on 11 Dec, and this picture was taken on 5 Jan 2017. So these are out of the ground for 3 weeks, and ~6 weeks from being planted.

C. sp. start of Year 2
The second year the forbs start out as threads but thicken into thin leaves by the end of the season. These were planted in Oct. 2014, and this picture was taken in Jan of 2016. Sadly I have no pictures from later in 2016. (Note rain year 2016 was very dry, essentially no rain fell until early January and shoots did not appear until after the rain).

This pot lives on my front porch, with no roof over it, open to the rain and weather. In the summer when the bulb is dormant I give it some water, once a week at most, but often I forget about it. In the winter the rains fall on it and they start regrowth. In dry winters (2015, 2016) I watered more frequently when needed.

C. sp. Year 3 Nov
The third year the forbs start out as curled leaves and unfurl. This picture was taken in November 2016 (same pot and planting as the previous picture, but rain year 2017 was much wetter with early rains in November). I did not find any wild basal leaves until December, so my garden seems to encourage early growth?

C. sp. Year 3 Jan
Same pot, early January 2017. The leaves now are about as wide as normal Calochortus basal leaves. Perhaps I’ll get a bloom this spring?

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