What is so rare as a Tiburon mariposa lily?

Close up of fascinating pale green and maroon patterned innards of Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis) Ring Mountain, Tiburon California. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Looking to answer my title’s question about the Tiburon mariposa lily, I was surprised to learn that rarity in the animal and plant world is quite common. Conservation scientists estimate that 75% of the species on earth are rare. The US Forest Service guesses that a third of the native plants in the U.S. can be considered rare. 

And we do not know how many species science hasn’t yet named; those remaining are most likely rare since large populations would have been identified by now.  Some of these yet-to-be-classified plants may be right at our feet. The tiny population of the Tiburon mariposa lily, in bustling suburban San Francisco — a plant I consider to be pretty showy — was only ‘found’ and named in 1971.

Double-flowered Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis) Ring Mountain, Tiburon California. Photo by Betsey Crawford
Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis)

There are reasons. The main one is that it only grows on one serpentine rock outcrop on Ring Mountain, in Tiburon, California, and nowhere else on earth. I’ve written about serpentine‘s difficult chemistry and celebrated Ring Mountain; its mariposa lily is another thing that makes it special. One of the first Spanish land grants in this area, Ring Mountain and its environs were grazing land from 1834 until the 1960s. Then, the remaining ranch land began to be sold to developers. 

I’m sure that the Coast Miwok people knew and had a name for the Tiburon mariposa lily before the land grants displaced them. It was both food and medicine for millennia. And I imagine that the cowboys who came to the ridge to find stray cows would notice the flower but feel no need to find a name for it.

Close-up of pale pink Oakland star tulip (Calochortus umbellatus) with darker pink and purple innards. Ring Mountain, Tiburon California. Photo by Betsey Crawford
Oakland star tulip (Calochortus umbellatus)

As showy as the flower is up close, its modest height, single leaves close to the stem, and mottled flowers do blend in with its grassy, rocky surroundings. It can take some focusing to find them, even when they’re right in front of you. So it wasn’t until the land was being explored for preservation that surveyors officially “found” the flower, classified it as a Calochortus, and gave it its official scientific name: Calochortus tiburonensis. 

The genus name comes from the Greek words ‘kalos’ and ‘chortus’: beautiful grass. Mariposa is the Spanish word for butterfly. There are lots of mariposa lilies in the west, over 70 species, 28 of them endemic to California. Two others grow on and around Ring Mountain: the also rare Oakland star tulip and the yellow mariposa lily.

Close up of vivid yellow mariposa lily (Calochortus luteus) Ring Mountain, Tiburon California. Photo by Betsey Crawford
Yellow mariposa lily (Calochortus luteus)

And there’s still more rarity: tiny, delicate Marin dwarf flax grows among the mariposa lilies on the serpentine, and Tiburon paintbrush grows on the next hill to the west. One rare subspecies of the otherwise not-rare jewel flower, the black Tiburon jewel flower, grows in a neighboring preserve, along with the rare Tiburon buckwheat.

As long as a plant population can keep itself healthy and reproducing, rarity itself is not a threat. But, except for the yellow mariposa lily, all the plants named here are considered endangered, defined as “a species in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”  If your range is a few hundred square yards of rock, it’s easy to be threatened with extinction.

Tiny white flowers of rare Marin dwarf flax (hesperolinum congestum) on Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California. Photo by Betsey Crawford.
Marin dwarf flax (Hesperolinon congestum)

Why all this endangered rarity in one small area? In this case, serpentine is the first limiting factor. Any plant growing on it has to be adapted to its toxic qualities, but those skills enable survival, not abundance. So you start with a small population. Then, in the case of wealthy Tiburon, you build roads, houses, driveways, stores, tennis courts. Gardens and lawns are planted in dirt carted in to circumvent the toxicity in the soil.

Even in the preserved areas, fire roads have to be built and maintained to protect the nearby houses. This disturbs the soil and opens it to a flood of opportunistic invaders, usually annual seeds that sprout quickly on small root systems. Taking, as they grow, water, nutrients, and light from the slower natives. According to the U.S. Forest Service, nearly 20% of the plants on the endangered list got there because of invasives, and half of at-risk plants have been affected by them.

Rare plants: black jewel flower (Streptanthus glandulosus, subspecies niger)) growing in Old Saint HIlary's Preserve, in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford
Black jewel flower (Streptanthus glandulosus, subspecies niger)

The more an environment changes from its original ecology, the fewer plants native to that place will be able to grow. And it’s not just the actual ground the plant is growing on. Pollinators like bees, birds, bats, beetles, and butterflies need space for their own environment, which isn’t necessarily the same area where the plants they pollinate grow. They may have come from a neighboring field or upland woods that are now houses or a shopping center.

Animals and birds leave areas that are too cut up, which don’t allow them the contiguous space they need to feel safe when building nests and foraging for food. So the ancient, intricate relationships of animal—plant—place are severed.

Rare plants: Tiburon buckwheat (Eriogonum caninum) growing in Old Saint HIlary's Preserve, in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford
Tiburon buckwheat (Eriogonum caninum)

While human activity does most of this severing, natural forces have a role. Floods, fires, droughts, landslides, and insects can all come in forms devastating to small plant populations, rendering them unable to reestablish themselves. And intrinsic qualities make a difference. The Tiburon mariposa lily’s seeds are too heavy to be wind-borne, so they fall at the feet of the existing plants, replenishing the colony, but not increasing its area.

Despite all the threats, rare plants continue to bloom in Marin, one of the few ‘rarity hotspots’ in the U.S. Because each plant’s numbers are low, there’s room for a variety of species. Each shares the tasks of that ecological niche, along with their interdependent creatures, like bees, butterflies, and beetles.

Soft yellow and green Tiburon paintbrush (Castilleja affinis, subspecies neglecta) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California. Photo by Betsey Crawford.
Tiburon paintbrush (Castilleja affinis, subspecies negecta)

One of the great glories of our planet is the wild abandon with which it has come up with species of animals, insects, and plants. And we only know of 1.7 million of them! Of those, botanists have only studied a tiny percentage; we have no way of knowing how many more there are.

Given such abundance, the fact that 20,000 species are on the verge of extinction may not seem disastrous. But, if that rate continues, we could lose 75% of the earth’s species in the next few hundred years, a mass extinction on par with the disappearance of the dinosaurs.  Many ecologists refer to our current rate of species loss as the sixth great extinction and fear it will only accelerate as the climate continues to change.

Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis)

Conservation scientists and organizations the world over are working on this challenge. There’s no one answer. All of the possible mitigators have a place: habitat preservation and restoration, nature-centered design, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, cradle-to-grave manufacturing practices, scientific literacy. We need both a lot of grand schemes, and millions of small gestures that we can make in our kitchens and gardens, in our neighborhood, in our local parks.

On one June visit to Ring Mountain, I went early in the morning to beat both the heat and the wind. As I was leaving, I met two of the county naturalists, setting up a table of snacks and literature. It was a volunteer day, and people were arriving to pull out one particular invasive thistle, which was new to the preserve, and very aggressive.

When we look at the scale of the challenges we face, it’s hard to have faith that small actions will help. But, as I found out later, 7 people showed up and pulled 1500 invaders, a huge difference in a small preserve. Grand schemes are enacted exactly this way, stem by stem, person by person, each one of us carrying one of the delicate threads in the whole.

Two stems and flowers of Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis) Ring Mountain, Tiburon California. Photo by Betsey Crawford
Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis)

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

Related posts:

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It had never occurred to me to do it, but when a friend invited me to a beekeeping class, I said, “Of course.” So there we were, in the middle of downtown San Francisco, all suited up and holding beehive frames, knowing that keeping bees is keeping the world.


Standing on the rocky ledge that is Ring Mountain, with San Francisco in view, I’m surrounded by a staggering variety of life. This sheer exuberance is a wonderful mystery. Why so many forms, so many colors, so many variations?


As a landscape designer, I specialized in native plants, and gave talks about their beauty and value. Why, I asked, do we choose to live in a place of distinct beauty, and then make our part of it look like everywhere else?

6 thoughts on “What is so rare as a Tiburon mariposa lily?”

  1. Loving your posts my dear. I think I miss them sometimes. I thought I WAS on your mailing list – could you check please. This is great work and beyond beautiful photo’s (well, simuliar to mine anyways!!). I have some rare flowers I took photo’s of down in Baja this year which I am going to work on. Came out after some good rains and gone within a day or so! Keep up the awesome work! Coming to this area this summer? Would be great to meet up again….hugs,Sube

    1. Thanks so much, Sube. I’m planning to be in Idaho in the fall, and look forward to seeing your photos. Those flowers that show up only with the perfect amount of rain and only for a day are so beautiful and heartbreaking. It takes existential fortitude to love flowers so much!

  2. Wow… If the Universe can put this much miraculous wonderfulness and beauty in just a few tiny things, that grow in just one or two places in the world (far as we know), how can we question for even a nanosecond how much wonderfulness has certainly in been put in each and every one of us…?

    Can we be as spectacular in our environments, wherever we are placed to grow, as this little flower so obviously is? “Toxicity” is obviously not a problem for these tiny living things… They adjust; they grow; they’re beautiful. Yes! That’s the whole idea!

    This, my dear friend, is, to me, what your blog is all about… And, as always, your photos are breathtaking.


  3. Betsey, you write so beautifully.
    I just went to a conference called the Science and Art of Awe put on by UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center. What you write here is awe inspiring. Thank you so much for you lovely use of words and such interesting information.
    Warmly, Ellen

    1. Thank you so much for this beautiful thought, Ellen. I would love to go to something called the Science and Art of Awe. I hope it was as good as it sounds. Sorry to be slow replying. I’ve been wandering through Utah, full of awe.

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