California Native Plant Society

Native Plants - Photo Gallery

California's Colorful Calochortuses: An introduction

By Dianne Fristrom, John Game and Glenn Keator

If any group of plants could turn a botanical novice into a wildflower enthusiast, this is it. The 45 or so Californian species in the genus Calochortus (Lily family) are beautiful, dainty and varied. Yet the genus is easy to identify from the 3+3 flower structure: three large often flamboyantly decorated petals with a nectary at the base and three narrower colored sepals. Calochortuses come in three main designs: Fairy lanterns (globe lilies) with nodding flowers and petals that enclose and hide their private parts; Mariposa lilies with upright flowers that are open and vase-shaped; and Star tulips with upright flowers that are bowl or tulip-shaped. Although the distinction between the latter two groups is somewhat blurred there is no mistaking a member of the genus Calochortus. The examples shown here are taken from "Wildflowers of the San Francisco Bay Area" CD-ROM by Fristrom, Game and Keator.

Fairy Lanterns

Calochortus albus (19k) photo by Glenn Keator

White fairy lantern (Calochortus albus) -- This is the most widespread of California's five fairy lantern species. The white petals are often flushed with pink as in this example. (Photo: G. Keator)

Calochortus pulchellus (32k) photo by Dianne Fristrom

Mt. Diablo fairy lantern (Calochortus pulchellus) -- Endemic to Mt. Diablo and a few nearby hills, this delicate beauty stars on the cover of the Jepson manual. A similar species, Calochortus amabilis, occurs from Napa and Sonoma Counties north, but is absent from the East Bay. (Photo: D. Fristrom)

Mariposa Lilies

Calochortus luteus (30k) photo by John Game

Gold nuggets (Calochortus luteus) -- This is a relatively common mariposa lily. Up to three inches across, these sunny yellow cups can be found dotting grasslands from April to June. The base of the petals are variously marked with dark brown lines or large splotches. (Photo: J. Game)

Calochortus venustus (28k) photo by Dianne Fristrom

Showy mariposa lily (Calochortus venustus) -- Perhaps the most spectacular of the mariposa lilies, this species is highly variable in flower color and markings. The squarish shape of the nectary (the hairy patch near the base of each petal) distinguishes this one from similar species. (Photo: D. Fristrom)

Calochortus invenustus (42k) photo by John Game

Shy mariposa lily -- (Calochortus invenustus) -- This species lacks the kaleidoscopic markings of C. venustus but with its delicate lilac color it is just as lovely. There is an identifying green stripe on the outside of each petal. (Photo: J. Game)

Star Tulips

Calochortus tolmiei (25k) photo by Dianne Fristrom

Pussy ears (Calochortus tolmiei) -- With its triangular, densely hairy petals, its hard to resist stroking this pussy's "ears". This species is fairly common and widely distributed in Northern and Central California. (Photo: D. Fristrom)

Calochortus umbellatus (19k) photo by Dianne Fristrom

Oakland star tulip (Calochortus umbellatus) -- In contrast to pussy ears, the petals are hairless except around the nectary. As the species name implies, there are often several flowers in a cluster. This species is endemic to the San Francisco Bay Area and grows on dry brushy hillsides. (Photo: D. Fristrom)

Calochortus uniflorus (19k) photo by John Game

Large-flowered star tulip (Calochortus uniflorus) -- This plant is similar to Oakland star tulip, but the petals are pale pink rather than white. Despite the species name "uniflorus" there are often several flowers per plant. It is an uncommon species that inhabits open wet meadows. (Photo: J. Game)

About the Photographers

DIANNE FRISTROM is a retired geneticist from U.C.B. A botanical novice, she has a keen interest in photography and computer graphics. She recently combined these skills with the vast botanical expertise of John Game and Glenn Keator to produce "Wildflowers of the Bay Area" on CD-ROM. Dianne can be reached via email at

JOHN GAME works as a molecular biologist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He pursues an active interest in plants and botanical photography, especially photographs of Californian plants in the wild. Special interests include ferns and the family Liliaceae. John is active with CNPS, and is on the Board of the East Bay Chapter. John can be reached via email at

GLENN KEATOR is a free-lance botanist, teacher, and writer who lives in Berkeley. He has taught widely on many botanical topics and leads fieldtrips all over California. His main interest is California native plants, and he is especially enthused about promoting natives in appropriate garden landscapes. His latest books include Plants of the East Bay Parks, The Life of an Oak: an intimate portrait, and In Full View. He is currently working on a book describing the botanical/chemical aspects of California plant habitats with organic chemist, Greti Sequin.

Photos and text © 2000 D. Fristrom, J. Game & G. Keator. All rights reserved.



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