By Robert M. Case
I have never forgotten that spring day back in 1958, when I
attended a 4-H field day at Russelman Park on the slopes of Mt.
Diablo. As I walked along a narrow trail, I noticed a nodding
flower of an exquisite lemon chiffon color. I knew nothing about
the flower but I took the memory of its beauty home with me and
I started a child's search for the answer to that first question
that all children have, what is it, what is that plant's name? I
had no idea at the time that my search for a name would last so
long and carry me so far. The immediate answer to my first
question was miraculously easy to find. I went home and quickly
found a black and white photo in a Child Craft Nature book my
parents had purchased in the 40's. There was no doubt, I had
seen my first fairy lantern. The first of many I have seen in
the last forty or more years, as a volunteer at Mt. Diablo State
Park, a biology teacher for local colleges and as an
agricultural biologist doing field work. Since that first find I
have had the pleasure of finding and photographing many species
of Calochortus in the western United States and Canada.
We are blessed to have about a dozen species of this
"beautiful grass" in the San Francisco Bay area where
Mt. Diablo fairy lantern (Calochortus pulchellus) is endemic to Mt. Diablo
and surrounding foothills. In late April and early May
it can be found in the foothill woodlands of Briones,
Mt. Diablo, Diablo Foothills and Morgan Territory Parks.
The sepals are usually greenish and "cup" the
Diogene’s lantern (Calochortus
amabilis) looks much like C. pulchellus but
is more yellow in color, sometimes with brown-red
markings on its petals. The sepals are true yellow and
usually "standout" from the petals. I see it
frequently in the north bay area of Napa and Sonoma
The other local "fairy lantern" or globe
lily is the white flowered Calochortus albus. This delicate flower is found in the coast ranges and
the Sierran foothills. In some areas the flowers have a pinkish tinge. I find this plant abundant in mid spring in the
Monterey Peninsula. It is not uncommon in the bay area
in moist woodland habitats and in the Sierra foothills
at about 2,000’ along State Highway 88 east of Jackson
in the first week of May.
Another group of flowers in the genus are known as the
Mariposa Lilies or butterfly tulips. These flowers have three
large open petals and three narrow, sepals which are often
brightly marked and colored.
Square mariposa tulip (Calochortus venustus) is the most common
representative in the east bay grasslands. This species
prefers sunny hillsides and short grasslands. Its bright
white petals with deep red markings make it conspicuous
in the late spring after the annual grasses have turned
brown. This mariposa, like several others in the genus,
displays variation in the color of the petals and marked
differences in the markings on the petals and sepals.
This magenta specimen was photographed east of Jackson. The shape of the
nectar gland or nectary, which lies near the base of the
petal is characteristic. In C. venustus the gland
is generally square in shape.
The golden nuggets (Calochortus
luteus) is bold, beautiful and delicate. Like C.
venustus it prefers sunny slopes and somewhat rocky
soils. And like C. venustus, it is well
represented in the bay area and the Sierra foothills. I
enjoy insect watching in these open mariposas. Many interesting insect species
come to gather pollen, nectar and to prey on the
pollinators. Notice the crecent shaped nectary.
In the southern Bay Area and in the Monterey area club-haired
mariposa tulip (Calochortus clavatus) is
a prominent yellow flowered species that resembles C.
luteus, but often has brown markings on the petal
edges and a brown line circling the petal cup above the
gland. In addition the hairs on the petals have clubbed
tips and the nectary is round. This photo was taken in
Monterey County in May, 1998.
Pink star tulip (Calochortus
uniflorus) is about the only bay area Calochortus found in vernal pools and marshy meadows. It has large,
light pinkish-lilac to white flowers that are close to
the ground. Soggy knees and meadow foam flowers filled
with busy bees are part of the memories I have of
photographing this flower in early spring west of Santa
In the Oakland star tulip, (Calochortus umbellatus) the petals are white
with purple markings near the base. This plant is found
in shallow soils, the flower is near the ground. I have
seen large populations of this species on the southern
slopes of Mt. Diablo along the Sycamore Creek Trail.
The tall, delicate splendid
mariposa lily (Calochortus splendens) is
a beautiful lilac color with deep red near the base of
the petals. It is found in chaparral and on dry, sunny
hillsides in shallow, rocky soils. I have photographed
it at Mt. Diablo State Park and on rocky slopes near
The most edaphically restricted Calochortus in
the Bay Area is the Tiburon
mariposa (C. tiburonensis). Discovered in
the early 1970s, this flower has striking markings and
is found only on the serpentinite soils of Ring Mountain
on the Tiburon Peninsula, Marin County. The green flower
with maroon and yellow markings is quite beautiful but
somewhat inconspicuous in the blue green serpentine.
Calochortus tolmiei is one of the group of Calochortus with hairy petals or pussy ears.
The flowers are a beautiful pink to lilac and are often
low to the ground in coastal areas and in the north
coast ranges to Washington. I have photographed it at
Point Lobos Reserve, Pt. Reyes and Salt Point State
About the Photographer
BOB CASE holds a Masters degree from San Francisco State
University in Ecology and Systematics. He has taught biology and
environmental science classes in many bay area community
colleges for twenty five years. Currently he is the Integrated
Pest Management Specialist, with the Contra Costa County
Department of Agriculture. He is responsible for the
implementation of biologically sound pest management practices,
including the biological control of weeds.
Bob lives in Concord with his wife and teenage daughter. He
enjoys extended travel and weekend jaunts in California to
pursue spring, and its bounty of wildflowers. He frequently
speaks at meetings of plant lovers (CNPS etc.) and for garden
clubs on pest management and wildflower photography.
Photos and text © 2000 Robert
M. Case. All rights reserved.