Botanist, San Jacinto Ranger District
The lemon lily, one of our most spectacular local wildflowers, is rare and uncommon but not on the endangered species list. This 3 to 5 foot plant with large showy yellow flowers and whorled leaves is found in mountain creeks from 5,000 to 9,000 feet in our Southern California Mountains with a few — maybe two — populations in the mountains of Southern Arizona as well.
Today, this is where the lily is found, in scattered groups in the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains. Moist habitats are key. Lily seed needs to be moist and cool to germinate and grow in the following year. Seeds develop into scaly bulbs about an inch in diameter. When the bulb has accumulated enough energy, in three to five years, it will produce a flowering stalk with one to nine or more fragrant yellow flowers.
Plants in nature don’t appear to multiply by bulb; the extent of vegetative reproduction is unknown. However in culture, scales from the bulb can be removed and placed in a special soil mix to grow into individual bulbs. This is how nurseries from out of the area (in Oregon) produce lemon lilies that are available for purchase. Tissue culture is another way that seems to be successful as well. But it’s hard to cut up even one bulb to do this!
Lily enthusiasts world-wide know about the lemon lily; it has been used extensively in breeding programs to produce some of the most beautiful garden cultivars. At least three lily hybrids have been developed by crossing the lemon lily with other kinds of lilies and then reproducing them by the methods mentioned; one is “San Gabriel”. This may be the way to direct our low-land lily lovers to plants that will grow in valley gardens — and are at least “part Lemon Lily”.
Genetically variable populations in the wild are important for lemon lilies to persist; lilies must have a pollinator to produce seed. Available information suggests that sphinx moths (Hyles lineata and Sphinx perelegans) are the main pollinators. It makes sense; the lemon lily flowers are the most fragrant at dusk when moths would be flying. We really need to do a lemon lily “stake-out” and watch plants for a day and late evening to find out who is visiting our lilies here.
In one of the earliest floras of the San Jacinto Mountains, an observation was made of the incredible collecting pressures by admirers trying to get the lemon lily in the nursery trade. With so many bulbs removed from our mountains, it’s no wonder that the lemon lily is a rare plant. The drought in the 1970s may also have dried up much of the lily’s habitat as well; fluctuating water levels have affected lily populations in Arizona.
With a little care and attention, the Lemon Lily will continue to grace our mountains and be part of our lives.