Trout, Fawns & Dog’s Teeth
Fascinating lilies from bulbs or seeds
by Rachel Foster
I first encountered Oregon fawnlilies (Erythronium oregonum) in the yards of older homes in Eugene’s rocky southwest hills, where I lived at the time. Sturdy little relics of pre-development days, they still grow there in the thin grass under native oaks and widely spaced Douglas firs. These cream colored, down-facing “lilies” on stems less than a foot high flourish in open woodland throughout the Willamette Valley and elsewhere west of the Cascade mountains, blooming in late March and April.
Erythronium species occur naturally in Asia, Europe and North America. Most of them, around 20 species, are found in Western North America. Dog’s tooth violet, adder’s tongue and troutlily are all common names for various erythroniums, but those in the American west are generally called fawnlilies. The first name refers to the oddly shaped, elongated bulb, while troutlily and fawnlily reflect the brownish spots or mottling on the leaves of some species, including Oregon fawnlily.
Much less common in our area than Oregon fawnlily is the pink coast fawnlily (Erythronium revolutum). It grows in meadows and damp forests close to the coast, from northern California to the Olympics. The leaves sport a network of silvery white or brownish veins. You can see coast fawnlilies in the rhododendron garden at Hendricks Park in Eugene, where it was introduced many years ago. The beautiful white-flowered avalanche lily (E. montanum), a species you may run into at higher elevations in the Coast Range and the Cascades, has plain green leaves.
Avalanche lily is reputedly difficult to grow, but some species of erythronium do really well in gardens. Oregon fawnlily spreads by seed and stolons and may form wide-spreading colonies in a well-drained, woodsy area that gets some sun in spring. (All species go dormant after they set seed.) In more conventional flower gardens it may be easier to find a home for the kinds that readily make bulb offsets and form clumps. These include the beautiful European dog’s-tooth violet (Erythronium dens-canis), but I have had difficulty getting this established in my garden.
I’ve been more successful with coast fawnlily and two robust, well-tested garden varieties, Erythronium californicum ‘White Beauty’ and E. ‘Pagoda’, a cross between ‘White Beauty’ and the yellow-flowered, plain green-leafed E. tuolumnense. You can grow these in ordinary good (not too heavy) garden soil between small shrubs and other clump-forming perennials. They will tolerate moderate summer watering as long as the soil is well drained. It is a good idea to mark the clumps so you won’t disturb them during their long summer dormancy and so that you can keep vigorous, self-sown plants like foxglove and columbine from gobbling them up.
Common Oregon fawnlily can be grown from seed. You can also buy bulbs, from late summer into fall, from Buggy Crazy at the Lane County Farmers’ Market. Sometimes Buggy Crazy has other species, too. Plant sales are another good source: Watch for sales, coming up in spring, sponsored by Destination Imagination, Mt. Pisgah Arboretum, Avid Gardeners and the Willamette Valley Hardy Plant Group. Go early.
Rachel Foster of Eugene is a writer and garden consultant. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org