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Avalanche Bros: Erythronium grandiflorum

There’s a disturbance in the woods. The snow has melted in most places, the skiers have slipped away with the entrance of spring. And as you come to a bend in the trail, there's a whole crowd of brilliantly radiating guys, just chilling there, letting it all hang out.

Meet, the avalanche bros, the glacier guys, the yellow alpine lilies.

Erythronium grandiflorum.  Avalanche lily flowers. Yellow fawn-lily. Yellow lily flowers.
Erythronium grandiflorum, avalanche lilies

Try not to stare. They always have their junk out in the breeze, suspended on long filaments with very... um, obvious anthers. Their guy-gonads, man-bits, pollen-packs, dude-junk, stamen-stuff (hmm, that one is too accurate).

Erythronium grandiflorum.  Avalanche lily flowers. Yellow fawn-lily. Yellow lily flowers. Sexy flower.

These handsome fellas (complete with a packed pistil pal as well) gather in groups in sunny alpine clearings all over the northwest and even east into the Rockies. Like a field of miniature suns shining down on the warming soil and the new sprouts just starting to emerge beneath their smiling rays. Their lemon-yellow blooms require some sneaky peeks to get a full look, but you know I’m down (literally… on the ground) for that. But still from a standing position, one can see just how packed these guys are. They echo loudly the warm return of the sun to our temperate region after the long cold winters’ snow recedes, all with their naughty bits out in the still-cool breeze. For all to see. Lilies have no shame. And they have nothing to be ashamed of anyway.

Erythronium grandiflorum.  Avalanche lily flowers. Yellow fawn-lily. Yellow lily flowers.
the avalanche bros, soaking up the sun on a mountain slope of Mount Townsend (WA)

These guys have a few denominations: yellow fawn-lily, glacier-lily, avalanche lily. Most accurately would of course being Erythronium grandiflorum, with a few varieties as well under that name. Depending on the elevation, you can find them blooming it from March to August but could be making seed pods at the lower elevations while the high alpine ones are just getting started, like climbing back in time (bloom time).

Erythronium grandiflorum.  Avalanche lily flowers. Yellow fawn-lily. Yellow lily flowers.

The avalanche bros sport generally solitary aka “scapose” flowers on a leafless stem (the peduncle) ten to twenty centimeters tall and nodding toward the ground, though some can also have multiple flowers. Their stand proud with 6 tepals reflexing back around their 6 long stiff airy filaments tipped with a big creamy anther (some get very red actually, depending on the population). These stamen boys ring their large central pistil with her sticky forked stigma like hanging guards.

Erythronium grandiflorum.  Avalanche lily flowers. Yellow fawn-lily. Yellow lily flowers.
white avalanche lilies, Erythronium montanum flower, white alpine lily, white avalanche lily flower
white avalanche lilies (Erythronium montanum)

Some similar lilies are also hanging out on the melted-out mountain slopes in spring, even another “avalanche lily”, but which have a yellow center and white tepals beyond, and some white-flowered lily species have decorative mottled patterns on their similar-shaped paired leaves which are typically set opposite each other and thick partly folded oblong shaped, like green taco shells (the hard kind).

Similar yellow lilies in eastern North America are the E. americanum, with similar yellow flowers but mottled leaves like the western deer's tongue lily (E. oreganum) & rust-colored stamen.

Erythronium oreganum leaves, deer's tongue lily leaves, giant fawn-lily leaves
Erythronium oreganum, deer's tongue / giant fawn-lily

If you find a pink fawn lily, it’s rare, so don’t pick it! Give it a sip of your water in fact but don’t even touch it. The yellow avalanche lilies don’t mind a fondle here and there by a gentle hand. Move some pollen around between distant plants even. That will help them out with spreading the seed, or making the seed really. That pert pistil needs attention too and she’ll do the heavy lifting in making the babies.

Erythronium grandiflorum.  Avalanche lily flowers. Yellow fawn-lily. Yellow lily flowers.
fading avalanche lily flower

Once the mountain slopes have been sufficiently rocked by fawn lily hanky-panky, it’s time for the flower parts to shrivel, dry and fall away. This makes way for the classic lily fruits- round upright capsules sort of club shaped, like a triple-ridged upside-down tear drop, with an antennae (the dried up but still perky pistil). Also classic lily, these avalanche lily fruits turn upright from the nodding habit of the sun-beaming flowers. The remnant pistils get to look at last up at the real sun and the bright blue mountain sky as the fruits grow below them; the miracle of plant life- seeds.

Avalanche lily capsule.  Erythronium grandiflorum fruit. Erythronium grandiflorum seed capsule. Yellow fawn-lily seed pod.
avalanche lily capsule forming

Something will shake their seeds free when ready to release and with any luck they’ll travel a bit away from the glacial lily pack to spread their population a little more into a clearing or even a new forest opening. They may sprout their first roots as the fall rains return and begin the laborious process of developing the below-ground corm root modification where sugars formed by the green leaves above will be stored away for a few years (if a bear doesn’t claw them out for a tasty snack) before they can finally make nodding lemon-yellow lily flowers of their own. Far-protruding stamen and all.

Erythronium grandiflorum leaf.  Avalanche lily leaf. Yellow-fawn lily leaf. Young avalanche lily
Erythronium grandiflorum leaf
Young Erythronium grandiflorum leaf.  New yellow-fawn lily.  Young avalanche lily.  Yellow fawn-lily bud.
young Erythronium grandiflorum

Say howdy to a gathering of theses guys, or even a few scattered specimens as you pass amongst their high elevation habitats. And try not to stare at all that plant-sexiness. Unless you’re a botanist.


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