A fine flower to start with

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received in regard to learning wildflowers was to “concentrate on one family at a time.” The person advising me didn’t, of course, intend that I should devote my attention exclusively to the species in a given family and ignore any plants outside that group. But she rightly intuited that making real progress in a systematic manner required some sort of focus.

My choice was the Lily Family (Liliaceae). In retrospect, I realize that picking this family was a rather grand first choice since it includes many genera and an array of species. I could have started with a less complicated group. But I was attracted by the showy — sometimes even gaudy — species represented in the Liliaceae: fly poison, wild hyacinth, lily-of-the-valley, trout lily, swamp pink, Indian cucumber root, grape hyacinth, bog asphodel, star-of-Bethlehem, Solomon’s and false Solomon’s seal, featherbells, rosy twisted stalk, the numerous trillium species, the bellworts, turkey beard, etc.

The centerpiece genus of the Liliaceae is, of course, Lilium or the so-called true lilies. Here in the southern mountains this genus is comprised of five quite distinctive species: turk’s-cap lily (Lilium superbum), Canada lily (L. canadense), wood lily (L. philadelphicum), Michaux’s or Carolina lily (L. michauxii), and Gray’s lily (L. grayi).

Of these, only the turk’s-cap and Michaux’s lilies are, in my experience, commonly encountered. The rarest species is Gray’s lily, also known as bell lily, orange-bell lily, roan lily, and roan mountain lily. It is, for me, not only the most beautiful species in the Liliaceae but also the most beautiful wildflower I have encountered in North America.

The species is named for Asa Gray, America’s first great formal botanist. In 1840, Gray and several companions explored the high mountains of North Carolina. Among the many exciting plants they located was the spectacular red and purple-spotted lily that would, in 1879, be described as a new species and named in Gray’s honor.

Gray’s lily is a perennial, standing from two to four feet tall, with a smooth stem that bears three to eight whorls of narrow leaves. From June into early August, it displays from one to 10 bell shaped, slightly flared flowers on long stalks. The flowers are poised in an almost horizontal position. Each flower head is dark red or reddish-orange outside. Inside it is somewhat lighter in color and distinctively marked with numerous purple spots. It is a stately, almost regal plant.

This rare and endangered species is limited in its natural state to high-elevation, moist, grassy open areas and woodland thickets. Its distribution is restricted to a handful of counties in western Virginia, east Tennessee, and western North Carolina.

In an open, grassy plot alongside the creek on our property, Elizabeth and I once attempted as part of a horticultural experiment to grow several seedlings of Gray’s lily originally propagated from seeds by Kim Hawks, who was at that time the owner of Niche Wildflower Gardens near Chapel Hill. They flowered sparsely for several years and then disappeared. If we ever try to raise Gray’s lily again, we’ll create and place the plants in a moist peat bed in wooded shade.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The Naturalist's Corner

  • Fingers still crossed
    Fingers still crossed Status of the Lake Junaluska eagles remains a mystery, but I still have my fingers crossed for a successful nesting venture. There was some disturbance near the nest a week or so ago — tree trimming on adjacent property — and for a day or…

Back Then with George Ellison

  • The woodcock — secretive, rotund and acrobatic
    The woodcock — secretive, rotund and acrobatic While walking stream banks or low-lying wetlands, you have perhaps had the memorable experience of flushing a woodcock — that secretive, rotund, popeyed, little bird with an exceedingly long down-pointing bill that explodes from underfoot and zigzags away on whistling wings and just barely managing…
Go to top