Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Lilies Among Us

What do you think of when I say “Lily”?  Perhaps a large, trumpet-shaped bloom with fat, pollen-encrusted stamens that stain your nose when you try to smell them?  That traditional lily flower is a member of the scientific family Liliaceae, but there are many other members that do not have that look.  Recently I became curious what plants around me are actually part of the Lily family; here is what I found.

First I did some research to see what characteristics members of the Lily family might have in common.  I thought that surely they would all have a bulb structure … nope!  Some have bulbs and some have rhizomes or corms.  Even their seed/fruit characteristics are not the same – some have fleshy fruits that are dispersed by animals while others have capsular fruits with papery seeds that travel by wind.

Next I decided to see how many genera are found in the family Liliaceae.  A quick check on the USDA Plants database found 108 genera in the United States, but a few of them are not native.  Still it would be accurate to say approximately 100 can be found.  So I picked out the ones that I’ve found in Georgia – about 15 for sure.

The most obvious and one of the showiest is the genus Lilium.  Both Lilium superbum and Lilium michauxii are found in North Georgia and their flowers are quite beautiful.  These produce papery seeds in capsules and have the expected tear drop-shaped lily bulb.

Carolina Lily, Lilium michauxii
 Lilium canadense

Next I spotted some of my favorites that still at least have "lily" in the common name: Trout Lily, Spider Lily and Rain Lily. Trout Lily, also called Fawn Lily, is Erythronium umbilicatum. One of our earliest blooming flowers in North Georgia, the foliage disappears quickly once temperatures warm up.  Spider Lily (Hymenocallis caroliniana) is incredibly showy; it is sometimes called Shoals Spider Lily or Cahaba Lily because some species of Hymenocallis are found in river shoals such as in the Cahaba River in Alabama.  Rain lily, also called Atamasco Lily, is in the genus Zephyranthes.  The beautiful blooms can be triggered to bloom by abundant rain after a dry spell.  We find white ones (Zephyranthes atamasca), but they come in shades of yellow and pink also.

Erythronium umbilicatum

Zephyranthes atamasca

Hymenocallis caroliniana

Trillium grandiflorum

Even the familiar Trillium genus is in the Lily family and you can certainly see the resemblance.  But after that it got harder and harder to "see" the resemblance!  The next five all share the characteristic of clusters of many small flowers: Fly poison (Amianthium muscitoxicum), Camas (Camassia quamash), Fairy wand (Chamaelirium luteum), Featherbells (Stenanthium gramineum), and Solomon's Plume (Maianthemum racemosum).

Camassia quamash
Maianthemum racemosum
Chamaelirium luteum

Amianthium muscitoxicum

The next four have bell like flowers: Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum), Bellwort (Uvularia), Mandarin (Prosartes maculata), and Clinton's lily (Clintonia umbellulata).

Polygonatum biflorum

Prosartes maculata
Clintonia umbellulata
Uvularia perfoliata

And finally there these two - I don't see the resemblance to lilies at all: Yellow star-grass (Hypoxis hirsuta) and Indian cucumber-root (Medeola virginiana).

Medeola virginiana

Hypoxis hirsuta

Photo by Sheri George

What an interesting family!


  1. Nicely done, Ellen! That's quite a variety of plants you touched on! and I didn't realize that yellow star grass was a lily at all! Thanks for an enlightening article ~~Loret FNPS

  2. Hi Ellen,
    I have the Michigan Lily in my garden - very similar in coloration to the Turk's Cap. People visiting the garden don't believe me when I tell them it's native. Great photos, glad I found your blog.

  3. Yes, that was one of my other posts - showy natives that people don't believe are native just because they are so showy! I have enjoyed reading your blog too, Heather. The recent posts of about pollinators have been very informative.

  4. I've always assumed that anything lilylike [;-)] has two sets of three petals set to fit in with each other. From tulips and the early spring bulbs through to the fused petals of lily of the valley. The main surprise was Allium and garlic.