Enamored with Erythronium by Noah Oldham

Erythronium also called fawn lily, trout lily or dogtooth lily, are undoubtedly some of the most elegant plants anywhere.  They have the same nodding grace inherent in all lilies but in addition, they have a demure, quiet beauty that’s hard to miss.  The foliage is mottled and simple, with just enough of a pattern for you to take notice in a garden but the perfect camouflage in the dappled sunlight of a woodland setting-indeed like the spots on a young fawn or the flash of a trout.  The flower scape is tallish (per Dr. Kruckeberg) in proportion to the basal leaves and unbelievably delicate even gracile.  The flower itself is the very image of modesty.  A flower this beautiful has every right to face the sun with pride like some vulgar daffodil, instead, it faces the ground as if in a gesture of obeisance.  If it had hands they would be folded in prayer, head perpetually bowed.  Its six tepals are recurved, meaning they bend backward in a graceful curve.  They become more recurved as they age and reveal more of the beauty of their flower but stay pointed towards the earth as if they have a different audience than humanity.  If ever there were a good opportunity to use the word chthonic (and trust me there aren’t many) now would be one of those times.  I’ll save you the effort chthonic-of or relating to the earth.  Particularly the underworld.  Mysterious little plants…

It’s hard for me to write about Erythronium without pretending to sound literary.  I can’t help it.  They inspire me.  I’m enchanted with them, and it’s due entirely to Dr. Kruckeberg’s description of them in his book Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest.  I can practically recite from memory “There is scarcely a more bewitching sight in a woodland garden that the prim ranks of fawn lilies adrift in generous numbers-nodding bells, mottled leaves, and superb color make for a breath-taking picture.”  When I first read this I had never seen the prim ranks adrift anywhere other than my mind and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on some.

As an Erythronium fancier (yeah, I said it…) you are sharply and constantly reminded of the importance of patience.  This plant will make you work for it.  Seed to bloom can take up to six years and finding any for sale that are already in flower can be challenging.  Even if you try to cajole, bribe and charm the staff of your favorite little botanic garden and are assured that “yes they have some and yes they will be putting them out for the Mother’s Day sale”- it still may not be enough.  If you’re 20 minutes late they’ll most likely be sold out.  Trust me on this.

If and when you do finally get your mitts on some, treat them like gold.  The tiny little bulbs which look eerily like an extracted dogs tooth (I suppose anyway) need to be well potted up and allowed to establish themselves before planting out.  By keeping them safe in a pot or trough for a few years you also get to witness one of their most interesting behaviors, that is-that they can run from voles and mountain beavers.  Over time the bulbs will plunge deeper into the soil and will quickly find the bottom of your pot.  It’s nice for me to think that these precious little plants are animated enough to find their own preferred depth in the soil.  It reminds me that as much as we would like to think that we are in control of our gardens, in fact, the most successful gardens are those that are a collaboration between the gardener and the plants.

Erythronium is a prolific self-propagator in the Pacific Northwest (at least E. revolutum is) so the good news is that if you would like to get started with these precious plants, you will, in time be rewarded with your own prim ranks.  But again- 6 years from seed to bloom so it takes a real vision and a stable garden space to succeed.  The best time to start is six years ago.  The second best time to start is right now.   Erythronium is a good plant for people who understand compound interest or enjoy planting trees.

Talking to Steve Hootman (the director of the Rhododendron Species Botanic Garden in Federal Way) once at the end of a long summer I was asking him about starting seedlings, separating the delicate little bulblets, the right soil mixes for the sowing flats and on and on and on.  He looked at me kind of impatiently and showed me his method.  He grabbed a dried seed pod and strew the seeds.  He said, “I’ve been doing this since the day I got here and now there are thousands of Erythronium at the garden.”  Sounds easy enough I suppose.  Just gotta get started…

2019-04-20T10:37:56+00:00April 20th, 2019|