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 luminescent magic completely captivates me.
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 photo above, which I took in my garden, shows the pagoda-like flower of Erythronium oregonum (Oregon fawn lily or giant white fawn lily), which occurs in nature in moist to dry woodlands and grasslands at fairly low elevations in southwestern British Columbia, 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 in their own right. The only downside of this native lily is its ephemeral nature: like most perennial bulbs, they go 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 them, or a closely related species, quietly in bloom a month or two later.
How They Grow
Pollinated by native bees and butterflies, these endearing plants thrive 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 leaf litter and other detritus are allowed to accumulate. That said, I have several growing where they get very little direct sunlight and they appear quite happy. 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
If your yard is lacking rich topsoil, add leaf compost before planting and don’t remove light layers of fallen leaves from the soil in autumn. Bulbs should not be allowed to dry out completely, but they may rot with consistently moist conditions, so be sure your soil drains well and keep soil just slightly moist during the dry summer months of the Pacific Northwest.
Erythonium species look best grown en masse, as found in nature, roughly a foot apart. Plant them at the same depth (or slightly lower) 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. As far as propagation goes, bulb division in your garden is possible but not recommended—if they are planted in appropriate conditions they will seed themselves (or you can help them along by collecting seeds from their capsules after the seed has ripened and pot them up, but I like to let them do their own thing). Patience is needed, though—it can take many years until their first bloom. What’s that old adage? Good things come to those who wait.
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 is optimal, but be sure not to plant them where some leafy, zealous understory plants will cover their leaves during spring (such as western bleeding heart). 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. E. grandiflorum, or glacier lily, with yellow flowers, is also found in alpine and subalpine meadows and typically 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.