The Oregon Fawn Lily, Erythronium oregonum and its many names.

Oregon Fawn lily- Erythronium oregonum
© 2011 Aislinn Adams
Oregon Fawn Lily, Erythronium oregonum.

The Fawn lily, Erythronium oregonum, and its many common names.

Erythronium oregonum has many common names- giant white fawn lily, Oregon fawn lily, dog’s tooth violet, trout lily, adder’s tongue, lamb’s tongue. Maybe this is why the Historic Deepwood Estate here in Salem, Oregon- where I live- has chosen the scientific name for their annual spring native plant festival. Not wishing to confuse people with a common name that is not “common” to all, they use the scientific name Erythronium (pronounced, err- ih-throne- ee-um.) Personally I find it much more useful to use the scientific name for the same reason. Never underestimate the creativity of humans to come up with interesting and numerous common names for one plant, and though they are lovely, ultimately they are rather confusing, especially when trying to communicate which plant you mean to someone.

My first fawn lily, Erythronium oregonum.

Erythronium oregonum was one of the first bulbs I planted in my own garden when I moved to Oregon many years ago. It has since seeded itself throughout my front yard, totally ignoring all my efforts to corral this charming spring bloomer into an attractive sweep of creamy yellow. It was one of these flowers that I used for my botanical illustration above, and inspired me to create my Pacific Northwest Native Plant Greeting Card Series.

The fawn lily and early plant explorers.

When I first saw this beautiful fawn lily here in the Willamette Valley I assumed it must have been collected by Lewis and Clark or David Douglas in the early 19th century. This is not the case. The first fawn lily to be described from this part of the world, pink fawn lily, Erythronium revolutum, was collected by Archibald Menzies in 1793 and described by James Edward Smith in 1809. Then in 1806 the fawn lily’s mountain “cousin” the glacier lily, Erythronium grandiflorum, was brought back by Lewis and Clark (Lewis called it a dog’s tooth violet in his journal) and described by Frederick Pursh in his Flora Americae Septentrionalis in 1814. (for more on the collection see my blog  The saga of the Lewis and Clark Plant Collection and the Irish nurseryman Bernard McMahon’s unwitting role in its fate!.) The glacier lily, Erythronium grandiflorum, also has other common names including yellow fawn lily and yellow avalanche lily.

The common fawn lily, Erythronium oregonoum, erroneously mis-identified.

It wasn’t until 1935 that the more common fawn lily, Erythronium oregonum, was finally described by the Oregon botanist, Elmer Applegate. As is often the case with plant exploration and identification, the story is not that straightforward. According to Applegate “for nearly a century this familiar plant has been known erroneously as Erythronium giganteum Lindl. or as Erythronium grandiflorum var. albiflorum.” ( Kalmiopsis Vol. 10 2003. Native Plant Society of Oregon.) So maybe my assumption wasn’t so far off the mark. Is it possible that some of the Erythronium grandiflorum bulbs collected by Douglas (April, 1826 and 1827) may have been Erythronium oregonum after all?

Elmer Applegate and David Douglas.

There is a tenuous link of a different kind between Applegate and Douglas. Applegate’s wife Esther Emily Ogden was a niece of Peter Skene Ogden (the well-known fur trader and chief trader with the Hudson’s Bay Company.) Douglas met Ogden August 30, 1826 at Fort Vancouver, Washington, directly after Douglas’ exciting 12-day descent of the Columbia River from Fort Colville in eastern Washington. During that descent he had a lucky escape when his canoe was wrecked at the Dalles; causing him to loose the insects he had collected in the interior and some seeds, but he managed to save bulbs of the glacier lily, Erythronium grandiflorum, collected in the Fort Colville area. In April the following year, while on his journey overland to Hudson Bay to meet his ship bound for England, he collected more of the glacier lily in the same area and transplanted them in the hope of keeping them growing all the way to England. Maybe it was these particular transplants that were the first fawn lilies that he is credited with introducing into England. Now I wonder if they were all glacier lilies: if some of the Oregon fawn lilies had not been introduced into the mix also?

When I drive by the Deepwood Estate along Mission Road here in Salem and see the expanse of pale yellow that is the fawn lily, it’s hard to imagine that Douglas didn’t see them while traveling though the Willamette Valley. At any rate, it is a wonderful sight to see and, no doubt, it will be enjoyed by the many visitors to the festival next weekend- Friday and Saturday April 5 and 6. For more information about the festival click here-  I am delighted to say that my cards will be on sale at the festival also.

Aislinn Adams


2 Responses to “The Oregon Fawn Lily, Erythronium oregonum and its many names.”

  • I am so sorry to have missed the Erythronium Spring Plant Festival–they are among my favorite plants! I had no idea that they naturalized so readily. Your illustration of this lovely plant does it credit, just beautiful!!

  • Aislinn Adams:

    You haven’t missed it yet, that is if you are around the area next weekend i.e April 5 and 6.?

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