Calochortus superbus

Today’s Botany Photo of the Day was taken by Friend of the Garden Ian Gillam. He grows the flowers under cover at his Vancouver home. Steve Coughlin wrote the entry.

Calochortus, a genus of over 70 herbaceous species, derives its name from the Greek for "beautiful grass". The genus is a member of the lily family, and is renowned for its showy flowers, which rest elegantly atop single stems that rise from perennial bulbs. Calochortus species all have a single basal leaf, inflorescence-supporting bracts, and a perianth composed of three sepals and three petals. These petals and sepals vary from each other in terms of size and colour, and, in this, Calochortus is unique among members of Liliaceae. Though its occurrence seems to be centered in California, where 40 species grow in the wild, Calochortus is in fact quite widely distributed along the western coast of North America, extending from the southern parts of British Columbia through to the northern tip of Guatemala and as far east as the Dakotas. One species, Calochortus nuttallii, is the state flower of Utah.

Calochortus superbus —the species featured in the striking chiaroscuro of today’s photo—was first collected in California’s Yosemite Valley in the early years of the 20th century. This non-invasive species—commonly called the superb mariposa lily—is endemic to California, where it grows in open meadows, valley grasslands, and foothill woodlands. Generally reaching a height of 40-60 centimetres, C. superbus flowers in late spring and early summer, and enjoys full sun and well-drained soil. Though the plant goes dormant in the summer, it is hardy to zones 7 through 11 and can survive at fairly high altitudes as well (up to 2400 metres). The stems generally bear 1 to 3 upright flowers that take the shape of a small cup; each of the overlapping petals is blotched at the base with a chevron of deep purple or brown surrounded by vivid yellow, though the species exhibits a broad diversity of colour. The exterior of the petals is generally the same colour as the interior, and, as if to pique the curiosity of passersby, it displays a faint, alluring shadow of the intricate internal design.


Gerriten, Mary and Ron Parsons. Calochortus: Mariposa Lilies and their Relatives. Portland: Timber Press, 2007.

Calochortus superbus

17 responses to “Calochortus superbus”

  1. Meg Bernstein

    Thanks for showing the pollinator! Wonderful photo.

  2. Elizabeth

    Whew!! What a photograph! What a flower!!
    A truly brilliant design!!!

  3. Connie

    Perfect! Thank you.

  4. Eric in SF

    Species in the Mariposa Section of Calochortus are more frequently pollinated by beetles.
    See Pollen and pollination, Amots Dafni, Michael Hesse, Ettore Pacini, p. 309
    I recently saw Calochortus tiburonensis, a species restricted to a small hill across the Bay from San Francisco and only discovered in 1971!

  5. Annie Morgan

    superb lily, superb photo! Many thanks.

  6. tessa

    What a beauty! I often find myself wondering about the dimensions of the flowers you show. An approximation in centimetres, or even inches would be very much appreciated, by me at least!
    Fast approaching 60, I find flowers are becoming more and more fascinating to me. They always did delight, and I have a degree in botany. Now I am learning to grow plants which I would never have had the patience or time to try.

  7. Elizabeth Heinz


  8. elizabeth a airhart

    lovely just lovely

  9. Julile

    Fabulous! Reminds me of two of Van Gogh’s “moth” paintings! Please keep spoiling us with these amazing entries!

  10. Elizabeth Gordon-Mills

    The central part of the flower reminds me of a kaleidoscope design

  11. Alexander Jablanczy

    Yes exquisitely beautiful.
    And what is the name of this trilobite cockroach stinkbug?

  12. Mary Ann, in Toronto

    Gorgeous! If you search google *images* for “Calochortus superbus”, you’ll see many variations in pattern and colour, and also photos that show the exterior of the petals, and that show the cup-shape more clearly. The cup of the flower is actually quite deep, which is not so apparent in the beautiful photo above.

  13. jan

    WOW! A must have.

  14. Margi Willowmoon

    Who says monocots are boring? This is lovely.

  15. Mary Ann, in Toronto

    I’m still very much taken by Calochortus… and found a group pool labelled “Calochortus beauty”, with hundreds of photos, on flickr:
    Eric in SF has beautiful photos, part of this pool.

  16. Eric Simpson

    Wow. The “intricate internal design” on this one is SO intricate that it’s difficult to make out the arc of hairs on each of the petals. Very nice.
    I love Calochortus. It’s always a delight to come upon one locally in the sage scrub – a spot of brightness in the browns and grey-greens.
    And, I gotta ask, is the photographer the same person that sings for certain rock group?

  17. Eric La Fountaine

    No, not that Ian Gillam.

Leave a Reply