Glacier Lily

Credit: Richard Hebda

Glacier lily, a member of the lily family (Liliaceae), is a bulbous perennial growing 15 to 30 centimetres tall. It grows from a whitish, elongated, claw-like corm at the end of a short, deeply buried root-stem. Two lance-shaped to broadly oval leaves emerge directly from the ground, but unlike the leaves of the familiar white fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum), these are not marked with brownish blotches, but are a clear yellow-green. These lush structures reach to 20 centimetres long. One to five delightful yellow Turk’s hats dangle from the erect green stems. Each flower consists, as is the pattern for Erythronium, of three petals and three sepals (collectively called tepals) all hued a buttery yellow. When fully open the tepals curve backwards sometimes until the tips almost touch each other. A typical flower is about five centimetres wide. From its centre stretch six large stamens with bright-yellow to orange pollen-bearing anthers. The pistil with its long thin style pokes up the middle among the stamens. Flowering time usually depends on when the snow melts. In coastal gardens, I have seen flowers open as early as May, and in the wild they bloom from April in lowlands to as late as August in high-elevation mountain sites. The ripe seed capsule is about three centimetres long and contains numerous brown seeds. Glacier lily occurs mostly on the east side and east of the coastal mountains in the southern half of the province, as well as in a few places on Vancouver Island. Beyond B.C., the range of distribution extends east to Alberta and south to Montana, Utah and northern California. Wild glacier lilies form sheets of yellow from mountain mid-slopes to the alpine zone. Around Chase and Shuswap Lake, the lilies even venture in large numbers to lower valley slopes. You will encounter them congregating in moist mountain meadows, streaking down avalanche tracks and tucked amongst evergreen and deciduous shrubs in forest-parkland. Glacier lily is best grown from fresh seed sown in the fall. Sow the seeds in large clay pots covering them under about a half-centimetre of humus-rich potting soil, followed by a thin layer of coarse grit. Once the seeds have germinated and begun to grow well, plunge the pot into the ground in a shady corner that does not dry out severely. The goal is to nurture the young plants through the dry summers for two to three years until the bulbs reach a size sufficient to transplant into the garden for bloom in the following years. Once in your garden, glacier lilies may even sow themselves and spread. For some native species, raising plants from seed is tricky business. But many years ago I was invited to a Victoria garden where the owner had simply sown a packet of “mountain wildflower seeds” from a gift shop into the bed by her walk. There, blooming gloriously was a patch of glacier lily, proof of their will to sprout and thrive in our lowland climate. Plants are widely available from specialist nurseries, or they can be successfully transplanted during the dormant season from a friend’s garden, but please do not dig them in the wild. From personal observation, I would say the best setting in the garden seems to be adjacent to shrubby conifers or heathers. In the native plant garden at the Royal B.C. Museum, glacier lilies bloom year after year at the edge of a large conifer patch where they receive lots of morning sun, enjoy very good drainage and shelter from the afternoon heat. Considering the extensive geographic distribution of the species in the B.C. Interior, glacier lilies will probably grow in a wide range of situations in the garden, as long as the soil is neither soggy nor baked by the full heat of the sun. An annual top-dressing with humus or leaf mould will help perpetuate the glacier lily colony in your garden. Today we are attracted to glacier lilies for their beauty, but to First Nations people past, these wild plants meant a supply of food. In spring Interior peoples dug the bulbs once the leaves had emerged and the bud was showing. People came from far and wide to harvest the bulbs, hosted by the owners of especially prolific patches, such as in the Lytton area. They extracted the bulbs with special digging sticks, collecting as much as 100 kilograms per season. The harvest was often boiled, roasted in hot ashes or steamed and eaten right away. Peeled bulbs were threaded onto twine and dried and stored for later use. Dried bulbs were widely traded throughout the region. So if you are thinking of going native with woodlands and bulbs, consider the glacier lily, a plant quite capable of growing in lowland gardens, despite its lofty name. The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated: Erythronium grandiflorum – zone 6 (zone 3 under snow) Erythronium oregonum – zone 6 (zone 3 with protection)