In a small bit of coincidence, I stumbled upon this plant exactly 201 years after it was first collected by Lewis and Clark (images and stories of some plants collected by Lewis and Clark are available via James Reveal and The Lewis and Clark Herbarium).
I was driving along the narrow Skyline Drive through McCroskey State Park, waffling as to whether I should stop and photograph the abundant fritillaries. After making the decision, I spotted these elegant mariposa lilies along the bank as soon as I stepped out of the car. The 30m long strip of the embankment was the only place I observed the plants on the trip. Considering there were only about a dozen plants, each measuring less than 15cm (6 inches) tall, I felt pretty lucky to have found them, in retrospect. For comparison’s sake, their cousin, Calochortus macrocarpus, reaches 50cm / nearly 2 ft. in height.
I’ve discussed the imprecision of distribution maps before, but I think this is another good example to point out. A glance at the state-level distribution map for Calochortus elegans from the USDA PLANTS database suggests a broadly-occurring plant throughout the western United States. The Flora of North America’s distribution map (species account), which uses only sites where the plant has been collected, gives a much better idea of the relatively restricted locations this plant can be found. Within these areas, it is restricted to open forests with rocky soils at elevations between 1500m and 2500m (approx. 5000-8000ft).