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Idaho Mountain Wildflowers

Lily Family, Liliaceae (continued)

Melanthaceae (Bunchflower family)

California false hellebore, Veratrum californicum Dur. (above). California false hellebores (also corn-lilies, from their large leaves and budding flowers) are usually known simply as “veratrums.” They are impressive plants that grow in moist meadows and along water courses, appearing in late spring as high as treeline. Several species occur in the United States . One species or another are common in both eastern and western mountain states and provinces as far north as the arctic circele. Their small flowers are attractive and are often visited by butterflies (a zebra swallowtail in the illustration). Lewis and Clark collected our plant along the Lolo Trail in northern Idaho on June 25, 1806. It was not flowering, so it could not be classified. Veratrum is a name used in antiquity for a poisonous hellebore. All veratrums are poisonous and animals that browse the plants, sheep especially, may die, abort, or  give birth to defective offspring. A veratrum extract was used until recently to treat hypertension, and another, cyclopamine, is being evaluated as an anti-cancer medication.

Western trillium, Trillium ovatum Pursh (left, right) is a spring flower that often blooms while surrounded by banks of snow. The name “ovatum” refers to its pointed, oval leaves. Its three-petaled flowers are white, turning pink and then a light purple as they mature (right). Trillium flowers vary in size; tending to be smaller at higher elevations. We have not seen trilliums growing south of the Clearwater River drainage. Meriwether Lewis collected the western trillium on the Columbia River below today’s The Dalles, on April 10, 1806.

On June 15, 1806, while on the Lolo Trail, Lewis and Clark collected Trillium petiolatum Pursh (the purple trillium, not shown), It is an uncommon species, characterized by a reddish-purple three- petaled flowers and long-stemmed round leaves. The plant is found the northern half of Idaho and in Washington and Oregon.

Western stenanthium, Stenanthium occidentale A. Gray (left, right) grows along stream banks, and in moist meadows. We have seen it growing only in the northern part of Idaho. Dainty, nodding, bronze-colored, lily-like flowers with six recurved tepals are borne on downward-curving stemlets that come off at intervals along a slender stem. Several moderately wide leaves surround the base. Stenanthium is derived from two Greek words meaning “narrow flower,” apparently for their small size.

Bear grass, Xerophyllum tenax (Pursh) Nutt. (left, right). Bear grass (also Indian basket grass) is one of the Northwest’s more spectacular plants. A basal tuft of leaves (the “grass”) forms during snowmelt. A few weeks later, a tall stalk tipped with myriad tiny lily-like blooms appears. The leaves are ideally suited for basket making for they are strong, hard, and even in width almost to their tips. Lewis and Clark saw baskets woven from the grass during the winter of 1805-1806 while at the expedition’s Fort Clatsop on the Columbia estuary. Then, the following spring, while in today’s Idaho, they saw the plants blooming. Lewis collected two intact blooms during the crossing of the Lolo Trail (June 15, 1806).We have not seen bear grass in Idaho south of the southern approach to Lost Trail Pass (US Rt. 93) on the Idaho-Montana border.

Note: The three death camases shown here (elegant, foothill and meadow death camas) were formerly in the genus Zigadenus, and are so listed in most guidebooks. They have recently been reassigned to the genera listed here.

Elegant camus, Anticlea elegans (Pursh) Rydb. (left, right). The elegant camas (also mountain death camas, formerly Zigadenus elegans) grows, sometimes in great numbers, in mountain meadows as high as treeline. Usually about a foot high, the plant may grow to twice that height in favorable situations. It blooms from early to mid-summer, according to elevation. As the name elegans suggests, it is the most attractive of our three death camases. Its white flowers are large and the tepals are marked with heart-shaped green “glands” at their bases. All of the death camases are poisonous; this one is said to be least so. The elegant camas was collected by Meriwether Lewis in the vicinity of today’s Lewis and Clark Pass near Lincoln, Montana, on July 7, 1806.

Foothill death camas, Toxicoscordion paniculatum (Nutt.) Rydb. (left) appears in early spring, mostly on dry ground. It blooms at about the same time as the common camas, usually in early June. A naked stem is topped by a cluster of small, white, six-tepaled flowers. The flowers have six anthers that protrude beyond the tepals, and three styles. Several flowers are borne on each stemlet (botanically, these are panicles, explaining its scientific species name). The closely related and very similar meadow death camas, Toxicoscordion venenosum (S. Watson) Rydb. (right)—the species Latin name means “very poisonous”—has larger, tight-clustered flowers, one flower to each stemlet. Both plants are poisonous and may be lethal to browsing animals, or to humans if they eat the roots. The generic name Toxicoscordion, from the Greek, means “poisonous garlic.”

Ruscaceae (Butcher's broom family)

Feathery false Solomon’s seal, Maianthemum racemosum (L.) Link (left). The feathery false Solomon’s seal (also western false Solomon’s plume, and wild lily of the valley) is a common plant found in much of North America. Until recently the two false Solomon's seals shown here were in the genus Smilacina. On the basis of recent studies, however, they have reassigned to the butcher’s broom family (Ruscaceae) and to the genus Maianthemum. (The latter name was derived from two Greek words for “May” and “flower.”). The maianthemums, and many similar lily-like plants, commonly grow on moist soil, and often in forest shade. Deep green, parallel-veined leaves, and a cluster of small-petaled, yellow-anthered, white flowers make identification easy. Green berries turn red as they ripen.

Starry false Solomon’s seal, Maianthemum stellatum (L.) Link (right) has many common names. These include star-flowered (or western) Solomon’s plume, wild (or false) lily of the valley and others. The plant is quite similar in appearance to the feathery false Solomon’s seal shown on the left, differing in that its leaves are narrower, its tepals are larger, and the flowers are star-shaped (the species name, stellata, is derived from the Latin word stella for “star”).

Themidaceae (Cluster lily family)

Large-flowered triplet-lily, Triteleia grandiflora Lindl.  The large flowered triplet-lily is an attractive flower recently reassigned from the lily family (Liliaceae) to the cluster lily family (Themidaceae). It blooms in late spring or early summer, in dry grassy meadows to mid-elevations. Its attractive flowers are clustered at the top of a tall stem. Each flower has three outer and three inner tepals; the inner tepals have ruffled edges. Color ranges from white with blue markings (var. grandiflora, right) to blue with darker lines (var. howellii [S. Watson] Hoover, left). The species was until recently classified as a Brodiaea, a genus with three-anthered flowers. The British botanist John Lindley (1799-1865), studying a plant that David Douglas had collected, noted that its flowers had six anthers and placed it in a new genus that he named Triteleia. Time has proven Lindley correct, although the plant is still commonly listed as “Douglas’s brodiaea.” Meriwether Lewis collected the plant while ascending the Columbia River (April 17, 1806). Frederick Pursh noted that Lewis’s flower had six anthers, yet he also classified it as a Brodiaea, missing a chance to describe and name a new genus.

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