Glacier Lily

Glacier Lily, Erythronium grandiflorum

glacier lily

© 2000 James L. Reveal

Each of the red anthers on the stamens consists of two connected pollen sacs. The white style protruding below each flower's stamens carries the stigma, which is the female organ that is receptive to pollen carried on the bodies of insects and humming birds.

Fruit of the Glacier Lily

Long green tube sprouting from a white blossom

© 2000 James L. Reveal

Almost equally as attention-getting as the brilliant yellow grandiflorum is the large triangular fruit which, when boiled, is said to taste like a string bean.

Lewis immediately recognized this flower as a dog-toothed (or dog's-tooth) violet, so he did not bother to examine it more closely, nor to describe it in detail. He mentioned it numerous times in the spring of 1806, perhaps because the genus was so widely known back home as a harbinger of spring that it could be used as botanical calendar to mark the progress of the season.

Clark had mentioned seeing it at Camp Dubois on April 1, 1804; that would have been Erythronium albidum Nutt., the white dog-toothed violet. The next reference was in Lewis's daily Remarks on April 9, 1806, at Fort Clatsop; he likely saw either E. oregonum or E. revolutum. Lewis saw it again on June 5 near the Clearwater river. At that point it may have dawned on him that it might be different from the species he had known in the East, for he collected two specimens. There are, in fact, fifteen different species in the genus Erythronium, all but one in the U.S., with three of those in the Rocky Mountain region. The principal eastern species is Eurythronium americanum.

The common name by which Lewis knew it is somewhat misleading. Its familial affiliation is not with the violet (Violaceae) but the lily (Liliaceae). The allusion to a dog's dental features arose either from the shape and color of its root, or its tapered petalous lips curled back to show its antherous "teeth," or else its dentiform petals are the dog's teeth. It all depends on one's point of view. Other easterners might have known it by other names—fawn lily, perhaps from its appearance during the April-to-July birthing of deer; trout lily, for its coincidence with the fish's spawning season; adder's tongue, after the mildly poisonous reptile native to England and continental Europe; lamb's tongue, yellow snake-leaf, or yellow snowdrop. Because it appears—in the Rockies, anyway—at the edges of receding snowbanks it has also earned the name glacier lily.

Frederick Pursh, in 1813, gave it its scientific name, Erythronium grandiflorum. The genus name comes from erythro, Greek for "red," in reference to the color of the European species. The red anthers in the photograph above are not a consistent feature of all species of the genus. Grandiflorum means "large flower." Its relative size is enhanced by the naked stem standing between only two graceful, shiny leaves.


Funded in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission