A season of butterfly lilies

Lovely white with red and pink markings butterfly mariposa lily (Calochortus venustus) by Betsey Crawford

It is by observing nature’s unbidden delirium in its littlest expression…that [we regain] faith not only in survival but in the beauty, the worthiness of life.
~ Maria Popova ~

When northern coastal California’s winter rains end in early spring they leave behind a world of emerald hills. For a while, we all marvel at how green everything is. We know the verdant grasses covering the hills will soon turn to the golden tan they will wear until the rains start again. It’s the tangle of green turning tan that makes the rarest of mariposa lilies hard to register at first. The Tiburon mariposa lily below lives in a small area in one place on Earth: a rocky hill in Tiburon, California.

Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis) with its pale green petals and soft brick-colored markings. Photo by Betsey Crawford
Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis)

Because of its mottled coloring, it blends easily with the changing grasses and greenish serpentine rocks. Besides its flower, it looks like grass with its delicate stems and the few thin leaves that wither on flowering. As its scientific name attests; calochortus is a combination of Greek words meaning beautiful grass. So, standing on the hill on a May day, you have to work to bring the first one into focus. Then you begin to see them all over their tiny spot for their few weeks of bloom.

The exterior of the clay mariposa lily (Calochortus argillosus) with its reddish purple on white striping. Photo by Betsey Crawford
Clay mariposa lily (Calochortus argillosus)

Even when you have more contrast, mariposa lilies can be elusive. A friend took me to a ridge above a suburban San Francisco town to look for clay mariposa lilies, which are mostly white as you stand above them. By early May, the grasses on that dry ridge were already pale gold and the white petals barely stood out. But once we registered the first one, then another few, we realized they were everywhere, a super bloom after the abundant rains of last winter. Despite its unusual 2′ height, I had the same experience looking for the butterfly mariposa lily in the top photo. Find one, then the eye focuses differently. It’s an intriguing process, proof that paying attention expands our vision.

Everything about the yellow mariposa lily (Calochortus luteus) is bright yellow with green washes. Photo by Betsey Crawford.
Yellow mariposa lily (Calochortus luteus) on the edge of a forest in the Sierra Nevada, California

Mariposa lilies are a western North American phenomenon with close to 70 named species. Twenty-eight of those are endemic to (live only in) California. They grow from bulbs that have been prized foods for Native Americans for millennia. I’ve seen them as far north as Alberta. I haven’t seen the vivid orange one that grows in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, but I’ve seen pink, white, and yellow in Utah and Colorado deserts. Elsewhere, I’ve found mariposas on rocky hills, high on mountains, skirting the edge of the woods, windblown on the coast.

The vivid red and yellow interior of the clay mariposa lily (Calochortus argillosus)
The interior of the clay mariposa lily (Calochortus argillosus)

Like all the Liliaceae family, they have three petals and three sepals. Unlike many lilies, where all six look like petals, mariposa sepals are narrow, sometimes forming lovely curves. The three petals are broad, shaped like wings; mariposa means butterfly in Spanish. They tend toward delicate colors — mostly pink and white. Of the few deeper colors, I’ve only seen two varieties of vivid yellow, one cup-shaped, and a rare upside-down version called a globe lily. Or, more enchantingly, a fairy lantern. They have interesting, even wacky innards: twisting hairs, vivid markings, striking pistils and stamens. These are the details that help distinguish different species. Take the Calochortus tolmiei below, hunkering down at six inches on a bluff over the Pacific Ocean. It’s known for its exceptional hairiness — one common name is pussy ears — which likely helps it cope with the constant wind.

Pussy ears (Calochortus tolmiei) in Point Reyes National Seashore, California

The way Earth flings beauty around fascinates me. I honor the grasses for being the most powerful family on earth, and they can be subtly beautiful. But once the annual oats and ryes on our hillsides dry out, there is nothing there to prepare you for finding these exquisite lilies among them. Or on rocky outcrops. Or otherwise barren desert washes. And yet they are everywhere. I almost stepped on tiny, pale pink ones next to a dirt road in Oregon. The San Francisco Bay area, home to some 7.5 million people, is a hotbed of rare plants, including several mariposa species.

White flowers and buds of bruneau mariposa lily (Calochortus bruneaunis) by Betsey Crawford
Bruneau mariposa lily (Calochortus bruneaunis) found on the edge of a pine forest in Idaho.

This is an important lesson for us. Earth isn’t shy with her small beauties. She doesn’t save splendor only for grand vistas and awe-inspiring mysteries. She spreads it at our feet the minute we leave the pavement we are so attached to. She tosses her immeasurable gifts with abandon. She invites us to pay deep attention, often to the unlikeliest of places and the smallest of treasures. And rewards us when we shed everything else and devote our senses to the world right around us.

Pure white with yellow and black interior, smokey mariposa (Calochortus leichtlinii) happily grows in the high mountains of the Sierra in California. Photo by Betsey Crawford.
Smokey mariposa (Calochortus leichtlinii) is happy on granite outcroppings in the high mountains of California, Nevada, and Oregon. Note the seed head in the lower front.

The U.S. alone has almost 300 square miles of impermeable surface per person. Then there’s the built environment. Plus 63,000 square miles of mown grass. 900 million acres devoted to agriculture. Those uses, for good or ill, serve important purposes in our culture. But it’s important to acknowledge that they can also separate us from the cosmic and earthly forces that brought us here with infinite care and patience. Forces that we lived in intimate relationships with for 99% of our existence as human beings.

White and varying shades of pink Oakland star tulip (Calochortus umbellatus) is one of several rare mariposa lilies in the San Francisco Bay area. Photo by Betsey Crawford.
Oakland star tulip (Calochortus umbellatus) is another rare mariposa lily in the San Francisco Bay area.

I feel strongly that the continued severing of those powerful bonds has left many of us stranded. Uprooted in a culture that seems to require of its participants an unending round of activity, meaningful and not. Beauty interrupts all that. It stops us, asks us to stand still, open to a world outside of our habits and routines. Entering into communion with a small, exquisite, fleeting flower reminds us that we belong to this green Earth, that we are woven into her energies, that we are worthy of her many gifts.

White pointedtip mariposa lily (Calochortus apiculatus) growing in its natural habitat in a meadow of grass in Alberta, Canada. Photo by Betsey Crawford
Pointedtip mariposa lily (Calochortus apiculatus) growing in its natural habitat in a meadow of grass in Alberta, Canada

Top photo: butterfly mariposa lily (Calochortus venustus). Since mariposa means butterfly in Spanish, a common name that means butterfly butterfly lily seems silly. That’s so often the case with common names. Venustus is for Venus, the goddess of beauty, which makes much more sense.

There is a gallery with more mariposa lilies HERE.

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Close up of white and maroon striped fetid adder's tongue (Scoliopus bigelovii) King Moutain trail, Larkspur, California. Photo by Betsey Crawford


The first year, seeing the leaves sprinkled through the redwood forest, I suspected the plant would one day show me a flower. But it took a few years of looking before the delight of my first one. And then, as so often happens with quests, the end was only the beginning of the gifts.

Close up of white iris douglasiana with purple and yellow markings. Photographed on the King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford


“I am a star that has grown out of the earth, created from the gifts of my celestial sisters and the rich ground at my roots.”

In the beautiful ritual called The Council of All Beings, we invite another being to speak through us. For me, in the midst of the glorious California iris season, it’s no surprise that a wild iris came to claim me.


Attention is devotion, the poet Mary Oliver said. It is the gift we give back to the amazement of living, as well as a gift we give ourselves. As we step into the moment — awake, aware, moved, interested, curious — we bring vivid aliveness to days that can slip by in a blur of activity and reaction.

6 thoughts on “A season of butterfly lilies”

  1. Tweeted! Or X’d. Or whatever it is these days. But I definitely put this beauty where it’s needed, LOL.

    Lovely, as always. Thank you for reawakening our beauty sensors every month.


  2. Beautifully written! We’ve seen those mariposa lilies – they are truly stunning! I had never thought about pussy ears being a mariposa lily, but now that I think about it, it makes perfect sense. We saw it on a hill at Point Reyes too at Abbott’s Lagoon. We got super lucky and saw the orange desert mariposa lily in May at Joshua Tree – there were many in one tiny area along the road. If we hadn’t gotten out of the car and just walked around, we never would have seen it. It grows extremely low to the ground with practically no leaves (picture in my last blog post). Thanks for a wonderful post!

    1. Thank you so much, Pam. I’m planning to head to the desert next March and will now be on a quest for the orange one. INeresting that they are so low to the ground. Protection from desert conditions, perhaps?

  3. Thank you for your ode to Calochortis. I’ve met a few in my hiking the foothills and mountains of Northern California and even outside my back door. But your exquisite words and photos have filled me with new appreciation and inspiration. I’m very thankful.

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