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Calochortus - Exotic Butterfly Lilies In The Garden

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There are universal favorites as well as unique rare exotics among garden bulb plants. Along with tulips, narcissus, lilies, crocuses, the unusual, graceful and astonishing calochortus flowers are increasingly seen in gardens. This amazing plant of small height is capable of standing out in any collection. Although it is not easy to grow calochortus, they nevertheless win the hearts of lovers of exclusive flowers. Vivid in both character and appearance, calochortus are rapidly capturing the market for bulbous exotics.

Calochortus - exotic butterfly lilies in the garden
Calochortus 'Golden Nugget'. © Leigh Langman


  • Calochortus is a new flower in the exotic market
  • Botanical description of calochortus
  • A variety of calochortus species
  • Calochortus in garden design
  • Growing conditions for calochortus
  • Putting and digging up calochortus
  • Garden calochortus care
  • Calochortus multiplication

Calochortus is a new flower in the exotic market

Family Lily (Liliaceae) includes plants from the category of garden classics as well as exotic crops. This is a group of species, most actively amenable to breeding and constantly presenting pleasant surprises, which replenish the assortment of accent plants in the arsenal of gardeners and landscape designers.

One of the most unusual, rare and only starting to win our market is Calochortus. A unique small bulb with large flowers conquers both with its colors and greenery.

With the name of calochortus, classification of the plant and its purchase there are difficulties, but they are related only to the still low popularity of this plant. With us calochortus is often sold simply as lilies, or as butterfly flowers, and even as butterfly tulips, calling them flowering cereals.

Often the plant is almost impossible to identify at all until its delightful flowers bloom in the garden. When studying catalogs or the range of plants on the market, in the case of calochortus it is better to check the botanical name or at least a picture of the future flower, focusing first of all on its ornamental characteristics.

In nature, calochortus are found only in North and Central America. On the territory of the USA, Canada and Mexico you can fully appreciate the magnificent diversity of these plants, and it is there that the main selection work takes place. Among calochortus there are mountainous, desert, subalpine, alpine, tropical and temperate plants. In American and English design, calochortus are in particular demand; they are considered one of the most fashionable species of bulbs.

Botanical description of calochortus

Calochortus are herbaceous bulbs, tender, not large, touchy-twitchy, producing quite numerous leaves and slender peduncles. The bulbs are scaly, non-bulky, feeding roots are thin and threadlike. Branched shoots in height from 10 to 80 cm seem unstable and thin, but this impression is deceptive.

Slim forked branching stalks bear apical flowers on each branch. The leaves of Calochortus are typical of bulbs: linear, narrow, grass-like, they hug the stem and form a root rosette. Some species form only one root leaf.

The main and most attractive feature of calochortus is their graceful flowering. The unusual flowers of calochortus seem enormous, glowing, alluring. This small plant attracts the eye even in the company of other exotics. The delicate beauty of large, up to 8 cm in diameter flowers captivates by a combination of unconventional structure and simplicity.

Frequently, calochortus produce not single flowers, but flowers collected in loose umbrellas or clusters of inflorescences. The structure of the flower in calochortus is worth a closer look. It consists of six leaflets. Three sharp, spiky tepals and three symmetrical broad petals, often decorated with a pilose fringe, six large anthers on narrow large stamens in the center, spots and patterns in the pharynx evoke associations with butterflies.

The silky texture of the petals only emphasizes the amazing motley patterns and transitions that cannot be found in any other plant. After flowering, calochortus set three-winged fruit bolls that crack along the sepals.

The calochortus color palette includes delicate, watercolor variations of creamy white, yellow, pink, and purple tones. These plants have no pure color: the tone of the petals is blurred, often emphasized by contrasting spots in the yawn, which appear on both the inside and outside of the petals, creating a special patterned effect.

Calochortus - exotic butterfly lilies in the garden
New florists often confuse calochortus with the lily-like tulips. © JOE BLOWE

Diversity of Calochortus species

The genus Calochortus includes more than five dozen species of bulbous plants. Among them, less than ten species are widely used in landscape design, while the rest are rare collectible species, difficult to access and exclusive, but no less promising. In our country all Calochortus are still considered rare.

All plants are separately distinguished among a group of highland species, which enjoy fresh greenery even during the melting of snow, joining the chorus of primroses in the gardens. But more convenient is the American classification of calochortus, it divides plants into three groups:

  1. Mariposa (Mariposa lilies) - tall, large species with an interesting color of flowers looking upward yawning and smooth, unstripped petals. They are considered the most winter-hardy of all calochortus and absolute favorites for growing in the middle belt.
  2. Star tulips or Cat's ears (Star tulips, Cat's ears) - amazing highland species with furry, thickly pubescent petals and usually a very bright color.
  3. Fairy or Globe tulips (Globe tulips or Fairy Lanterns) are low-growing species with graceful shoots and drooping flowers, shaped like lanterns, with three sharp sepals and three petals forming a sphere, they resemble fuchsia in form.

Calochortus are most commonly sold in variety mixtures rather than individual varieties. The fashion for mixing different species with excellent coloration came from Holland. Buying a mixture you can get dozens of different color, plant size and flower shapes at once. Dutch breeders also generated some confusion with names of varieties and species, offering planting material under the name of a separate variety without specifying the species, although it is very easy to identify plants.

When choosing species and varieties of Calochortus, you should carefully check the winter-hardiness of the plant. Usually the bulb packages display the zones in which it is recommended to grow the variety. When buying bulbs on the free market, it is worth specifying in which region and conditions they grow. The more frost-resistant, capable of growing in zones 6-10, calochortus and heat-loving species are equally represented on the market. The latter can be planted in the middle belt, but will have to be protected or dug up for the winter.

The most interesting species of calochortus can be attributed to:

Calochortus - exotic butterfly lilies in the garden
Calochortus magnificent, or beautiful (Calochortus venustus). © Ron Parsons
Calochortus - exotic butterfly lilies in the garden
Calochortus uniflorus (Calochortus uniflorus). © codebeans
Calochortus - exotic butterfly lilies in the garden
Calochortus goody (Calochortus pulchellus). © Gary M

Calochortus splendid, or beautiful (Calochortus venustus) is an amazing plant whose flower petal spots resemble butterflies. This species is capable of producing flower stalks up to 60 cm high. The grayish, small leaves are accentuated by large flowers with very broad, rounded, partially overlapping petals and a mottled yawn, the color of which corresponds to a spot in the center of each petal.

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Calochortus uniflorus (Calochortus uniflorus) is one of the simplest looking and most touching species of calochortus. The cup-shaped, coarse-toothed margin of the petals, pale pink flowers with modest dark spots in the pharynx are combined in this plant with linear, flowering dark green leaves in large numbers, evoking associations with cereals. Dutch bulbs are sold as "Cupido" varieties.

Calochortus goody (Calochortus pulchellus) is a yellow-flowered species with dark, narrow leaves and unusual drooping flowers that resemble bright lemon lanterns. The sharp sepals combined with the petals forming a closed globular dome look strikingly bright.

Calochortus tolmiei (Calochortus tolmiei), Blue Cat's Ear, Blue Star Tulip is a low-grown and very mottled species. With flower stalks about 20 cm tall, the plant produces broader, brightly colored but sparse leaves and strikingly large three-petaled flowers, surprising not only by their dark gray yawn on a white background, but also by their striking dense mossiness.

Calochortus yellow (Calochortus luteus), marketed mainly as the "Golden Orb" variety, a spectacular low-growing species with dazzling large flowers.

Calochortus amiable (Calochortus amabilis), Golden Fairy Lantern, Diogene's Lantern - a beautiful species with half-meter flat leaves and a forked stem on which sit globular drooping lantern flowers with golden-green sepals and golden petals decorated with a brown spot at the base and a fine fringe around the edges.

Calochortus - exotic butterfly lilies in the garden
Calochortus tolmiei (Calochortus tolmiei). © Ron Parsons
Calochortus - exotic butterfly lilies in the garden
Calochortus yellow (Calochortus luteus). © Tom Hilton
Calochortus - exotic butterfly lilies in the garden
Calochortus pleasantus (Calochortus amabilis). © Steve Laymon

Calochortus white (Calochortus albus), called the White Fairy Lantern, is a medium-sized species with shoots and leaves up to 50 cm long, with two-centimeter drooping lantern flowers.

Calochortus sharply-petaled (Calochortus apiculatus) is a mountain species with tall, up to 50 cm stems and only one root leaf, it produces large, broad bells of upward looking flowers that have yellow colored petals combined with sparse pubescence, purple strokes and greenish pointed tepals.

Cat's Ear (Calochortus elegans), Cat's Ear is one of the most hardy and frost-resistant species. With a height of only 20 cm, it produces a large ground leaf and up to 10 star-bell-shaped flowers with lettuce tepals and light lilac or white, densely hairy petals.

Calochortus - exotic butterfly lilies in the garden
Calochortus white (Calochortus albus). © elwetritsche
Calochortus - exotic butterfly lilies in the garden
Calochortus sharplypilate (Calochortus apiculatus). © Montucky
Calochortus - exotic butterfly lilies in the garden
Calochortus elegans, Cat's Ear. © Scott Cox

Calochortus in Garden Design

Exotic and wetter-than-wet calochortus in landscape design are mostly known as unusual accents for alpinaries and rockeries. In alpine rock gardens with their specific conditions, calochortus does indeed best reveal its beauty without suffering from dampness.

The luminous tenderness of this amazing plant's blooms is perfectly emphasized by both typical plants in alpine rock gardens and boulders and stone chips. But calochortus does not have to be used only for alpinaries and rockeries, it is much more versatile and multi-faceted.

Calochortus can be used in garden design, in addition to alpinaries:

  • for decorating borders;
  • in the foreground of beds;
  • for arranging bright accents in the design of the front garden;
  • in flower beds of bulbs;
  • in collections of rare plants;
  • in front flower beds;
  • in mobile flower beds and compositions in containers;
  • as a potted plant for decoration of a terrace or recreation area;
  • as a room and balcony plant;
  • for bunting as live bouquets.

Calochortus can be regarded as an exotic culture and used in the modern garden as an unusual accent, especially if the focus is on textures, materials and minimalism in the gardening.

They will also fit in the appearance of the regular garden, joining the collection of bulbous favorites. But the true beauty and character of these plants is revealed in the landscape design. In "wild", imitating nature environment calochortus appear as true stars, unusual, shining and bright.

Partners for calochortus can be selected from among any plants that are comfortable with the same conditions. Calochortus shows its beauty best in company of evergreen miniature shrubs, ornamental deciduous plants and groundcovers.

Calochortus - exotic butterfly lilies in the garden
Partners for calochortus can be chosen among any plants that are comfortable in the same conditions. © fractalv

Conditions for growing calochortus

Calochortus are rather shade tolerant bulbous plants. Lighting is not at all important for them. They produce equally decorative and large flowers in the penumbra, and in diffused light, and in the sun. For the middle belt, as well as for any regions with harsh winters, it is better to prefer still good light.

But calochortus still allow free selection of places in the neighborhood with other crops, in light shade of shrubs - these are the sites where they will reveal their decorativeness to the maximum. It is worth avoiding all blowing, cold, excessively open areas, choosing warm and quiet places, protected from wind. Drainability of the soil is a key point for these plants. Calochortus planted on an elevated site or in places where there is no risk of stagnant water. They are great on alpine slides or in raised flowerbeds and beds. You can specially lay drainage for planting this plant.

For calochortus do not suit too rich, rough, compacted, acidic or alkaline soils. The plant needs good quality, worked, light, lightweight soil that contains mature organic loam. If the soil needs to be improved, mineral and organic fertilizers and loosening additives should be applied in advance, not before planting.

Calochortus planting and digging

Calochortus cultivation strategy depends on when the plant blooms. Most calochortus blooms in the spring. The main enemy of such calochortus in regions with harsh winters is rainy summers that do not allow the plants to go through a dry dormant stage.

In the middle belt, calochortus bulbs are best dug up and stored out of the soil during the summer. Digging up calochortus bulbs follows the same rules as digging up tulips. Bulbs are cleaned of soil, left to dry in the shade in the fresh air for 2-3 days, carefully cleaned of roots and dry parts, freely laid out in boxes and stored in a cool, ventilated, dry and dark place until late August or early September, planting at the same time as most bulbs.

Calochortus that blooms in summer are dug up for the winter, after the first frost, and preserved in the same conditions as tuberous or bulbous ones that winter outside the soil. Planting calochortus in early spring, after the soil warms up. Plants are convenient to grow in containers, burying them in spring and digging them back up for wintering. In winter, calochortus bulbs are stored at a temperature of +10 to +20 degrees.

Planting plants, regardless of the terms of planting, have general rules and principles:

  1. Before planting it is desirable to conduct treatment with fungicides, at least a weak solution of manganese.
  2. Bulbs calochortus planted at a depth of 5 to 7 cm or equal to twice the height of the bulb. At the bottom of planting pits pour a layer of sand.
  3. When planting, keep a distance of about 10 cm between plants for normal and 15 cm - for high varieties.
  4. Watering is carried out before planting, not after.
  5. The place of planting calochortus better mark a peg in case the plant will miss the season.
Calochortus - exotic butterfly lilies in the garden
In nature, calochortus are found only in North and Central America.© Jeff Goddard

Garden calochortus care

The moisture requirements of calochortus are very specific. During the summer dormancy period the plants are afraid of dampness, wetness, abundant rainfall. If the bulbs are not dug out, and elevation does not guarantee that the situation with overwatering will not occur, it is better to cover calochortus from getting wet with film.

In spring, during active development and flowering in periods of drought, it is better to include in the care program not abundant watering (1 time per week is enough).

Feeding of calochortus is very important. Special fertilizer mixtures for bulb plants or full mineral fertilizers are used for this culture. Usually one spring fertilization at the stage of budding or flowering is enough (fertilization at the beginning of growth can cause too strong leaf growth to the detriment of flowering).

For improving bulb maturing after flowering additional fertilization with potassium fertilizer can be applied.

Another care of the plant is reduced to only a few procedures:

  • weeding or mulching to prevent the development of weeds;
  • loosening the soil between the rows.

Wintering calochortus requires no particularly complicated preparation. Digging out for the winter is undesirable even for the heat-loving western varieties. Plants can be covered for the winter according to their winter hardiness and the recommendations given at purchase.

Wrap Calochortus only after the first frost arrives. For frost-resistant varieties, mulching with compost or peat is enough, but thermophilic varieties may need more thorough covering with dry leaves and nonwoven materials.

There is no hurry to judge whether or not the winter was successful for calochortus remaining in the soil. Sometimes calochortus bulbs are pulled into the soil and can skip a few seasons, unexpectedly releasing leaves and flower stalks after a few years. A calochortus planting site that shows no signs of growth in the spring is best left undisturbed for 2 to 3 years.

Pest and disease control in calochortus comes down to protection from rodents. Not only mice, but even rabbits and rats adore the bulbs of these plants. Plants should preferably be planted in mesh baskets or other rodent repellent measures. During winter it is better to trample snow around calochortus plantings.

Calochortus suffer from bacteriosis and rot if the soil is wet and constantly overwatered.

Calochortus - exotic butterfly lilies in the garden
Calochortus are ideal plants for rock gardens. © J. Maughn

Calochortus Reproduction

Like all bulbs, calochortus reproduce mainly by daughter bulbs. They are separated when dug up and planted together with adult, large plants in the fall. Small calochortus bulbs should not be overwintered outside the soil.

Growing calochortus from seed requires patience. The plants do not bloom until the 3rd-7th year. High altitude species of calochortus need a short stratification. You only need to mix the seeds with wet sand or sow them in a sandy substratum and leave bags or containers with seeds to germinate at +2 to +5 degrees for 2-4 weeks.

Sow calochortus seeds in the same terms as the first summer crops - in February or March. Calochortus seeds are sown in wide shallow containers with light sandy soil. If you cover them with glass or film and keep the temperature around +20 degrees they will germinate quite quickly. Containers with seeds should be kept in bright light. Young plants finish growing in containers for 2-3 years, then start growing according to the usual rules of planting in the soil and digging out the bulbs for the summer.

Possibly, some of our readers are already growing calochortus in the garden. Share your experiences with this plant in the comments to the article. We will be very grateful to you!