Native bulbs provide subtle beauty to the patient gardener. Also, native flowering bulbs are perhaps the most adept of the wildflowers at survival tactics.
Bulbs lie dormant for most of the year, three to 10 inches below the soil surface, where they benefit from ground moisture in winter and early spring. Once they sense the time is right, they send forth leaves, a stem, and finally delicate flowers. The flowers stay just long enough to produce seed—days for some, weeks for others. As moisture wanes, the plants vanish into dormancy. Some flower in early spring, others in early to mid-summer. At one time the bloom of each flower was a signal to native peoples that fish were coming or animals were migrating, or that other life activities were beginning.
You might be tempted to bring home plants from the wild. But don’t. The practical reason is it doesn’t usually work. Particular site requirements and finely tuned root systems prevent transplanting success. The moral reason is that overcollection and disappearing habitat have made some of our native species rare.
Wild Onions, Allium (1). About 30 species of wild onions grow abundantly in fields and plateaus where rock layers hold the spring moisture. After blooming and setting seed, they disappear for the rest of the year. All have an onion odor. The cooked bulbs of most of the species were a food source for Native American tribes. Seeds of wild onions easily germinate in gritty, sandy potting soil, but must grow two to three years before planting out.
Camas, Camassia (2). Camas flowers caused Meriwether Lewis to write of the blue meadows of blooming camas as “seeming to be lakes of fine, clear water.” Masses of the blue spires can still be found throughout the state in open, undisturbed grassy areas and on moist slopes in early May. They require wet ground in winter and spring, but like most bulbs, need to dry out after flowering. The edible, onion-like bulbs were an important food source for Native American tribes. Early white settlers to the region ate a chutney-like food made from camas bulb, salmon, and blackberries. A similar bulb, the toxic Death Camas,Zigadenus elegans, is almost identical, except for its white flower.
Lilies, Lilium. Although only members of the genus Lilium are true lilies, three other Northwest genera host flowering bulbs commonly known as sego lily, mariposa lily, avalanche lily, glacier lily, fawn lily, chocolate lily, and checker lily. They range in height from five-inch yellowbells to brilliant orange four-foot tiger lilies. Sego and mariposa (3) lilies, Calochortus, are among the most exotic looking of the native flowering bulbs. Mariposa lilies grow in ponderosa pine and grassland habitat of Eastern Washington and in sub-alpine conditions. Avalanche and glacier (4) lilies, Erythronium, often bloom through the last few inches of snow. Fawn lilies, also Erythronium, are native to coastal Washington in moist, shaded, and forested sites. Chocolate and checker lilies,Fritillaria, have hanging bell flowers colored an unusual brownish maroon speckled with light green mottling. Yellowbells, Fritillaria pudica (5), are found in early spring in sagebrush and ponderosa pine ecosystems of Eastern Washington. Leopard and tiger (6) lilies are two different species of Lilium, the true lilies. They grow in moist, woodland settings on both sides of the Cascade Range.
While there are other native flowering bulbs, the ones in this article are most likely to be seen by the casual hiker. For those who want to enjoy them in their home gardens, most of the flowering bulbs described here can be found in specialty garden catalogs. They will be more expensive than more common plants because of the long and involved propagation process. Your success in bringing them to your home will depend on your perseverance in finding nurseries that carry them and in providing a naturalized site that closely matches their native habitat.
Tonie Fitzgerald is a WSU/Spokane County extension agent in horticulture and author of Landscaping with Native Plants in the Inland Northwest (Cooperative Extension 2001) and Gardening in the Inland Northwest, (Washington State University 2001).