16 January 2010

Beautiful, Yes... Grass, No

Translations of Latin names of plants can sometimes be a bit misleading. Take, for example, Calochortus gunnisonii var. gunnisonii. Calochortus comes from the Greek "kalos," meaning "beautiful," and "chortos," meaning "grass" (Fiedler & Zebell 2002). I doubt that many people would argue that the flowers of this species are not beautiful, but I would be pretty hard-pressed to find any botanists who would say that this plant is a grass.

This species (and variety) of Calochortus, which is actually in the family Liliaceae, was named in honor of Captain John Williams Gunnison, who was murdered at the age of 41 while on a surveying trip in Utah (Southwest Colorado Wildflowers 2010). The first known collection of Gunnison's Mariposa Lily, as it is commonly known, was made in central Colorado in 1853 by Frederick Creutzfeldt (Southwest Colorado Wildflowers 2010); the species now is known from Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming (Fiedler & Zebell 2002), where it is found in prairies and open forests (Strickler 1996). "Mariposa" is Spanish for "butterfly," a reference to the large white to purple or bluish-tinged petals that are said to look like butterfly wings (Beidleman et al. 2000).

In Colorado, Gunnison's Mariposa Lily grows from the foothills to the subalpine (6,000 to 11,500' above sea level) (Guennel 2004). We saw Sego Lily, as it is also known for its edible bulb, at two locations while we were in Colorado in July 2009. One of those locations was in a meadow near the most photographed mountain peaks in North America (USDA Forest Service 2010), Maroon Bells, near Aspen.

The lake in the foreground of the photos directly above and below certainly lives up to its name of Mirror Lake!

The other place that we saw Gunnison's Mariposa Lily was at Jewel Mountain, near Boulder.

Interestingly, at both locations, we saw insects inside the campanulate flowers.

The photograph above shows the Xeric Tallgrass Prairie habitat in which we found Gunnison's Mariposa Lily at Jewel Mountain. Xeric Tallgrass Prairie is unique for Boulder, as the nearest similar habitat is over 500 miles away (Fairlee pers. comm. 2009).

Beidleman, L.H., R.G. Beidleman, & B.E. Willard. (2000). Plants of Rocky Mountain National Park. Estes Park, Colorado: Rocky Mountain Nature Association; Helena, Montana: Falcoln Publishing, Inc.

Fairlee, E. (2009). Personal Communication.

Fiedler, P.L. & R.K. Zebell. (2002). Calochortus. In: Flora of North America Editorial Committee, eds. 1993+. Flora of North America North of Mexico. 15+ vols. New York and Oxford. Vol. 26.

Guennel, G.K. (2004). Guide to Colorado Wildflowers, Volume 2: Mountains. Englewood, Colorado: Westcliffe Publishers.

Southwest Colorado Wildflowers. Retrieved January 16, 2010. http://www.swcoloradowildflowers.com/.

Strickler, D. (1998). Prairie Wildflowers: Showy Wildflowers of the Plains, Valleys, and Foothills in the Northern Rocky Mountain States. Columbia Falls, Montana: The Flower Press.

USDA Forest Service. Retrieved January 16, 2010. http://www.fs.fed.us/r2/whiteriver/rangerdistricts/aspen_sopris/mb_scenic_site/index.shtml.


Justin Thomas said...

That is one good looking flower. Did you happen to smell it? It looks like it would have a pleasing scent.

I just looked up a paper on those prairies. I had no idea such a phenomenon existed. Evidently, pieces of tallgrass prairie were common along river and stream floodplains throughout the shortgrass and mixedgrass prairies. Who knew?

Scott said...

I don't recall smelling it, but given the number of insects we saw in flowers, I'm guessing that you're right and that it does have a sweet smell.

Grasslands of Colorado would be a good place to spend some time in May/June.

Justin Thomas said...

You ain't kiddin'. When I lived in Colorado I would occasionally drive through a chunk of Comanche National Grassland. After hours of short, overgrazed pasture, the structure and diversity of the Comanche was a my first glimps of what it shortgrass prairie should look like. This was before I was a botanist. I have always dreamed of going back to botanize. We need to make this (or something like it) a 2011 priority.

Scott said...

Sounds good to me. The time of year that we would want to be there never seems to fit well with our work schedules, though.

Lynn C said...

I have never thought of the tallgrass prairie community in the foothills as xeric. I had always left that adjective to shortgrass prairie environments. I will have to read Marianne's tome on her grassland monitoring to get up to speed.

Can you visit in April, you might see one of the mountain plovers.

Scott said...

Hi Lynn. April (2011 at the earliest) would work, but is that too early for prairie plants in Colorado?