The Beauty of Fawn Lilies (Erythronium spp.)

Erythronium oregonum

The genus Erythronium, commonly known as trout lily, fawn lily, glacier lily, or dog-tooth violet (depending on the species and your location) offers such elegance that I can say with conviction that it is my favorite spring wildflower. Single plants charm and invite close scrutiny, but when found in drifts their collective luminescence completely captivates me. Let their magic entice you, too.

About 20 species of Erythronium are found worldwide and most occur in the western U.S. The botanical name comes from the Greek Eruthros, which means red, and refers to the pink or reddish flowers of some species. The photos in this post, which I took in my garden, show the pagoda-like flowers of Erythronium oregonum (Oregon fawn lily or giant white fawn lily), which naturally occurs in moist to dry woodlands and grasslands at fairly low elevations in southwestern British Columbia and Washington and Oregon (west of the Cascades), as well as parts of northern California. No doubt the Georgia Basin, Puget Trough, and Willamette Valley were once thoroughly adorned with them.

What appear to be recurved petals are technically tepals (a term used when petals and sepals cannot be differentiated)—white to pale yellow, with a gold heart in this species. Paired leaves that hug the earth are oblong and mottled, and gorgeous on their own. The only downside of this native lily is its ephemeral nature: Like most perennial bulbs, it goes dormant in summer. But when the flowers fade away in my low elevation garden, I know I can always venture to a higher elevation and find it, or a closely related species, quietly in bloom a month or two later.    E. oregonum

How it grows
Pollinated by native bumble bees, butterflies, moths and hummingbirds, this endearing plant thrives in partial shade (but not deep shade) with well-drained, slightly acidic soil that’s rich in organic matter—imagine the dappled shade of an open forest or wooded grassland where fallen leaves and other organic matter are allowed to accumulate. That said, I have several growing where they get very little direct sunlight and they appear quite happy, blooming each year (although not prolifically). They’re also found naturally in rocky areas, so look lovely planted in partly shaded rock gardens where their bulbs can stay cool during summer.

Try it at home
Erythronium species are easy to grow and trouble-free, as long as you are aware of their needs. If your yard is lacking rich topsoil, add well composted leaf mold before planting and don’t remove light layers of fallen leaves from the top layer of soil. Bulbs should not be allowed to dry out completely, but they may rot with consistently moist conditions, so be sure they’re placed where the soil drains well. Keep soil just slightly moist during the dry summer months of the Pacific Northwest.

They look best grown en masse, as found in nature. Plant them at the same depth (or slightly deeper) that they came in their pots, or about four inches deep. The bulbs are extremely delicate, so don’t try to move them after they are planted unless you can dig up a big chunk of surrounding soil without disturbing the roots, bulb, and stem in any way.

As far as propagation goes, bulb division in your garden is possible but not recommended—if they are planted in appropriate conditions they will sow themselves. Or, you can help them along by collecting seeds from their capsules after the seed has ripened and the flower scape splits; I once shook out 50 seeds from one dried flower capsule! You can sow the seeds immediately outdoors if they are dry enough, or keep them in a cool, dry place and wait until late summer to sow them (but don’t wait much longer, as they reportedly do not keep well): Fill a deep container or pot with a well-draining soil mixture. Press the seeds onto the soil and cover with coarse grit, then leave them outdoors to expose the seeds to cold/wet of winter. In springtime they will germinate and a single cotyledon will emerge. The second year, a single leaf will grow. Carefully separate the tiny plants during the end of the second or third summer (no earlier), repot, place in a bright, cool location where the plants can be kept moist during winter and spring and just slightly moist during summer. Patience is needed, though—it can take as long as five years until first bloom. Some species will multiply vegetatively if the flowers are carefully removed soon after flowering, which prevents energy going into seed production and instead into making more bulbs underground. If you have optimal conditions, you may find that they will self sow around your garden.  (2022 UPDATE: Six years after this post was written I can say with confidence that these lovely plants have indeed sowed themselves around my mostly native back yard.)

Grab a partner
E. oregonum can be found growing with other natives such as Garry oak, (Quercus garryana), Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), snowberry (Symphoricarpos spp.), sword fern (Polystichum munitum), camas (Camassia spp.), and various native grasses. Placing them under deciduous trees that allow early spring sunshine to nourish them but provide protection later on is optimal, but be sure not to plant them where some leafy, overly zealous understory plants will cover their leaves during spring (such as western bleeding heart)—I learned that the hard way. Substitute fawn lilies for bulbs like invasive Spanish bluebells that seem to be in almost every yard in my neighborhood.

Some related species: Erythronium revolutum (pink fawn lily) occurs naturally in moist coastal forests near shaded streams and in bogs; it is a “species of concern” in Oregon. A higher elevation species is E. montanum (avalanche lily, white avalanche lily) that is native to coastal B.C. and alpine and subalpine Olympic and Cascade ranges. Erythronium grandiflorum, or glacier lily, with gorgeous yellow flowers, is also found in alpine and subalpine meadows and does best at those elevations. E. hendersonii (Henderson’s fawn lily) occurs at low to mid elevations in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwest Oregon, while E. elegans (Coast Range fawn lily) is a threatened species that grows only at high elevations of Oregon’s Coast Range.

Enjoy! But please … never collect Erythronium seeds or plants from the wild.

E. oreganum

 

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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27 thoughts on The Beauty of Fawn Lilies (Erythronium spp.)

  1. Hi Eileen,

    I have fawn lillies growing in my yard (forested rural acreage) – adore them. They share one area with English ivy (unfortunately). My main gardening activity is removing invasive plants esp. ivy. I’d like to remove the ivy where the Lillies grow now (January – sea level – coastal Doug fir zone – and T-range is in the ‘7b’ zone in your “Real gardeners.. ” book) but am wondering if ripping the ivy roots out of the soil may disturb starts of the Lillies from the bulbs.. (nothing above soil yet) esp. this year as its been so mild. Would you recommend waiting until after the seed pods ripen in summer – or going ahead now? I’ve already taken the ivy off the Gary oaks and Doug fir that are mixed in with the Lillies.

    I have the same question regarding Trilliums. They grow throughout the yard and also share territory with ivy (but not Lillies – at least not yet).

    cheers-
    Deb

    Reply
    1. Hi Debby, I’d recommend pulling a very small area of ivy out and then check to see if you’ve unearthed any lily bulbs or broken any new growth. If not, you’re probably OK. However, there are several advantages to waiting until summer … less disturbance to beneficial insects trying to get through the winter in the soil or under fallen leaves, and less compaction to wet soil. (Generally it’s best to wait until mid to late spring to do any work that may cause disturbance. Once you see bees out and about it’s usually safer). So for that reason you may want to wait. For trillium, don’t do it anytime that leaves may get broken off since that can harm the plant. Hope that helps!

      Reply
      1. Thanks very much for your quick response.

        If you are willing to comment on my broad overarching strategy I would be grateful. Backstory – I have time to garden in winter given my work and family, not much in summer, so I was dismayed to read your book and realize that I was likely disturbing microbes and insects disproportionately by my timing. I’ve reasoned in a cost/benefit way that its still better to get it done when I can… but welcome your advice. I do garden in summer when I can (last summer it was full morning glory assault – all manual of course – did in summer because soil disruption was so major )..

        Over a decade plus of attempting to steward this property I’ve made significant progress but am always morphing my strategy and was delighted to read your book. I have a host of invasives from the previous owners (heaping them in the forest where they happily spread and probably planting some of them near the house like the glory and bamboo). I now foster islands of natives (all self seeded) so that they spread slowly into the adjacent area – property is big. I find removing ivy much easier than others e.g St. John’s wart. In past when I had removed large swaths of ivy with no natives present, new invasives colonized quickly – ones that are harder for me to remove – so I now leave the ivy as a temporary ground cover. I clear all invasives in narrow bands around my spreading ‘native islands’. I was hoping that by keeping the bands of ‘my disturbance’ narrow (rather than large contiguous) and infrequent my damage to microbes and insects would be minimal and they would recover more quickly.

        I think a lot – science is my profession – soil, plant succession and all related is out of my field. Sorry for the long mail. I sincerely appreciate your comments if you have time.

        Deb

        ps I do have many fabulous creatures (newts, snakes, swallowtails, nesting barred owls, brown creepers, Pacific wren, pileated woodpeckers and more birds than I can list) and of course insects that I can’t identify.

        Reply
        1. Sounds like you really have more than your share of invasives to remove. I’m so sorry!

          If what you are doing is working out well, then keep at it. Generally speaking, it’s best to remove all invasives before doing any restoration work so that they don’t reseed, etc., and so that natives can grow w/o competition (unless of course the invasives are supplying wildlife habitat — I imagine the snakes and newts might be taking cover in the ivy, etc.— so in some cases it may be best to do it incrementally, as you are doing). Cutting off any flowers/fruit/seeds from the invasives will help. I have neighbors with English ivy, full of fruit, and they don’t even bother to cut them off and one neighbor even waters the ivy in the summer. :-/

          One suggestion for you: If you can manage it, collect seeds from the natives you are growing (or buy more plants) and plant them in the fall in areas that have been cleared—this will speed up the restoration rate. And I don’t know which native species you are using, but assuming you are bringing back what historically grew there, if you have a choice, pick species that tend to be assertive spreaders, such as “pioneer species” (early succession) that appear after a natural (or not) disturbance.

          You might also want to consult your local (county?) soil water conservation district — they may be able to do a site visit and give you some more tips. Thank you for all your hard work!

          Reply
  2. Eileen,

    I have finally got some fawn lilies big enough to produce their own seeds and want to collect the seeds and spread them around the property. I know you need to wait until the seed pods split but can you collect the seed pods then or do the seeds change color? I’ve noticed that the seeds at this point are still yellowish white

    Reply
    1. Hi Hope, I’d wait until the seeds are fairly dry, just about ready to fall out. If you shake the pod a little they should drop out easily, and they should be a tan color, not so pale. You’ll need to keep a close eye on them, though, as the warmer weather will likely speed things up quite a bit.

      Reply
  3. Hi Eileen,
    Thanks for all your great content!! We recently planted a native fawn lily in our backyard in Springfield, OR, next to a pond. The soil was very damp, so we dug a little deeper than usual to fill-in with a compost soil blend to try to help with draining. After a week or two, the green leaves of the lily started to discolor to a yellow on the tips, so we added a bark mulch on top of the soil. This seemed to help momentarily but after checking this morning, the leaves are now mostly yellow. Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated!!
    -Nate

    Reply
    1. Hi Nate, Thank you for growing natives! Sorry about your plant … since it happened fairly quickly I’m thinking it could have been some physical damage to the stem that connects to the delicate corm underground. If it snapped, it may not have been apparent. If so, it will *probably* come back next year, but it’s also possible the corm is damaged, in which case it won’t come back. Wait and see? Other than that, 2 other slight possibilities: lily bulbs don’t like to dry out and natives don’t need (and some can’t handle) a lot of fertilizer — they like native soil — so if there was too much in the compost you used, or it was allowed to dry out, that could be problematic … but I seriously doubt it would happen so fast.

      Reply
      1. Thank you for the reply, Eileen!! I will continue to love and nurture, until nature plays its course.
        All the best,
        Nate

        Reply
        1. Nate, my white fawn lily plants always produce a lot of seeds and I’d be happy to mail you some if you’d like … just send me your mailing address via the form on my site. They are from the north part of Willamette Valley, but you’re not terribly far away. Take care.

          Reply
  4. Does anyone know if they are toxic to cats or dogs? I have these beauties popping up in my yard but lillies are toxic in small quantities.

    Reply
  5. when I was younger I used to go on field trips with Freeman King. I seem to remember him saying not to pick the Easter Lilies as it will take 7 years for them to rebloom. Is this correct?K

    Reply
  6. Someone told me that the bulbs are edible. I would not ever dig them up to eat, but I was wondering if the bulbs or flowers are edible.

    Reply
    1. According to Pojar & Mackinnon (Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, 1994), Erythronium grandiflora (yellow glacier lily) bulbs were eaten by indigenous peoples of the Interior Plateau but not generally used by Northwest coast peoples. Erythronium revolutum (pink fawn lily) bulbs were eaten by coastal peoples, first stored in “ventilated packets in a cool place …. some Kwakwaka’wakw people liked to eat them on hot days because they were cool and moist inside. They had a slightly bitter, milky taste. For a feast they were steamed in tall cedar boxes and served with large quantities of oolichan grease. Water was always taken after eating these corms; otherwise, it was said, one would get sick.” They don’t mention anyone eating E. oregonum (white fawn lily), but I imagine they may have.

      Reply
  7. Hi there, thanks for a great article! I am working on a little blurb about Fawn Lilies for the Lasqueti Island Nature Conservancy’s quarterly newsletter . Would you be willing to let us include your fabulous photo? I’d be happy to mail you a copy of the newsletter.

    Reply
  8. Can you plant them with other native ground covers like false lily of the valley?

    Reply
    1. Hi Jane, false lily of the valley (Maianthemum dilatatum) naturally occurs in shady moist forests, while fawn lily is more a resident of open forests or grasslands (where there’s more light), so their needs are different and I also wonder if the rhizomatous nature of false lily of the valley might cause its leaves to shade out the fawn lily in springtime. That happened when I had leafy western bleeding heart too close to fawn lily–actually lost a plant to that situation.

      Reply
  9. I have a fawn lily in my hard gravel driveway. Is it possible to move it at all?

    Reply
    1. Moving it (without killing it) might be possible if you can dig it up without disturbing any roots. But the bulb is likely quite deep so it may not be possible if the gravel is highly compacted. If you do try, I’d recommend marking where it is and then transplanting it in the fall when it’s dormant. There’s a chance it may not make it, so you might want to consider just leaving it where it is.

      Reply
      1. I started with one plant from the wild and now after ten or so years it has spread over my property almost like a ground cover in the spring and early summer. ..then disappearing late summer to appear in many NEW places in the spring..Sometimes in REMOTE areas from the initial bloom. The blossoms are not profuse but are beautiful in their isolation among the generous plants covering fairly large areas.

        Reply
  10. Dear Writer or person who made this,
    I wanted to know why these lillies look to the ground plz reply back im working on a project and thank you.

    Sincerly,
    Dez.G.

    Reply
    1. Hi Dezira, Different flowers evolved to attract different pollinators, and flower shape is one factor that determines who will visit. Some plants’ flowers attract a wide range of pollinating insects, while other types of flowers attract a very small range, or perhaps jut one type of insect. They may be “generalists” (use a lot of different flowers) or “specialists” (use just one or very few flowers). Much of it has to do with the length of the pollinator’s tongue (short, medium or long) and the types of flowers their tongues can get nectar and/or pollen from. Plants want to attract the most efficient pollinators, and fawn lilies’ pendant flowers exclude inefficient pollinators, since pendant flowers are difficult for many flying insects to get to. Bees are the primary pollinators of this wild flower, although flies reportedly may also be important in forest and alpine areas where bees are not as common. Since the pollen isn’t discharged all at once, the pendant position also allows the petals (technically tepals) to limit the possibility that rain or harsh wind will damage the pollen. The tepals also offer protection because they can close up in rain or during periods of low light. Hope that helps!

      Reply

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