Alligators, Lilies, and Sino-American Unity

01 Sep

Catesby’s Lily

Lilium catesbaei


Yesterday John and George visited a classic wildflower site, the Kitching Creek Trail through wet pinewoods and meadows in Jonathan Dickinson State Park to enjoy the late-summer wildflower display, with three species of purple Carphephorus decorating the trails.

Carphephorus (JB) (Included just for being pretty)

Carphephorus (JB) (Included just for being pretty)

All the flowers in their purples, whites, and yellows were garden-pretty, and top billing goes to the Catesby’s Lilies, with their enormous orange flowers on 2-foot stalks teetering in the wind.  In this blog a year ago we talked about Mark Catesby, the Lily’s habitats, and pollination:  CLICK

Catesby's Lily from Curtis Botanical Magazine

Catesby’s Lily from Curtis Botanical Magazine

But they are pretty enough to revisit, so here is more on some of the biggest, showiest wildflowers in our area.    Everybody loves lilies.  There are lilies in the Bible (consider the lilies of the field, how they grow:  they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these), lilies for Easter, lilies for funerals, Lily Tomlin, lily-livered cowards, and lilies in gardens across the Northern Hemisphere.    There exist about a hundred species altogether.  Such simple flowers, yet so successful and diversified.    Lilies have six “petals” (tepals), six stamens, and a central ovary with 3 chambers.  The plant base is usually a bulb similar to an onion which is related.  Most Lily flowers begin activity as predominantly male (pollen-releasing) and then shift to a predominantly female (pollen-receptive) phase.

Catesby's Lily from JB yesterday

Catesby’s Lily from JB yesterday


Close-up showing early-phase pollen release.   Stigma probably not yet pollen-receptive. By JB

Close-up showing early-phase pollen release. Stigma probably not yet pollen-receptive. By JB

Something we skipped last time are the distributions of Catesby’s Lily and relatives.  First thing to know,  there is a well known pattern across the botanical (and zoological) spectrum of a close relationship between the flora and fauna of the Eastern U.S. and of eastern Asia.  The alligator is a prime example.  So are lilies.  A DNA study just came out on Lily evolution showing ground zero to be in China, with major diversification some 7-8 million years ago.

These distribution maps come from the Flora of North America:

Wood Lily distribution (from FNA)

Wood Lily distribution (from FNA)

Catesby's Lily distribution (from FNA).   Catesby's Lily extends the range southward from its probably ancestor (or near=ancestor) Wood Lily.

Catesby’s Lily distribution (from FNA). Catesby’s Lily extends the range southward from its probable ancestor (or near-ancestor) Wood Lily.

Botanists who study lilies think they came to North America at least least twice.  You can divide the North American lilies (about 21 species) into two groups: 1) a big species cluster with nodding flowers, and 2) a species pair with upright flowers.  Botanist Mark Skinner, consistent with DNA studies, feels that the upright flower species pair represents a separate single introduction from the rest of the North American lilies.  The upright flower pair consists of our Catesby’s Lily and the similar Wood Lily (L. philadelphicum).  Wood Lily inhabits much of North America but stops at the Southeastern Coastal Plain, and Catesby’s Lily picks up where the Wood Lily leaves off, covering the Coastal Plain from Louisiana to Virginia, more or less.  Their distributions look like two complementary pieces in a jigsaw puzzle of North America.  A DNA study in 2000 shows the Wood Lily to be related to a cluster of species ranging form Japan westward into Asia.   It looks much like Catesby’s Lily.

Wood Lily (L. philadelphicum) from Resources for Teachers Project).  This species resembles and is probably ancestral to (or nearly so) Catesby's Lily.

Wood Lily (L. philadelphicum) from Resources for Teachers Project. This species resembles and is probably ancestral (or nearly so) to Catesby’s Lily.

Thus it looks in my speculating imagination like the Wood Lily or closely related ancestor came to North America from China, and that Catesby’s Lily is historically a splinter group from the Wood Lily (or similar ancestor) specially adapted to the hot, sandy, often-acid, often-wet, fire-adapted conditions of the coastal Southeastern U.S.  And splintering continues to this day, as Catesby’s Lily is sufficiently varied for its own splinter groups to have caught the eyes of gardeners: CLICK and find Lilium catesbaei to see splinter groups.

It is easy to be Florida-o-centric in our native  species wildflowering, but the broader context so often adds insight and interest.  A lily in a Florida state park appears to be the tail end of a traceable evolutionary trail leading all the way to a mountain range near Tibet.

(I wonder if there is a university in China that refers to itself as the Chinese equivalent of “The Gators.”)


Posted by on September 1, 2013 in Catesby's Lily


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10 responses to “Alligators, Lilies, and Sino-American Unity

  1. Martin

    September 2, 2013 at 6:00 am

    There’s SO MANY of them this year!

  2. George Rogers

    September 2, 2013 at 10:07 am

    Which is why I’m jealous of your job in JD Park. And I agree: I’ve never seen such a lily display. This must be the year of the lily. And everything else along the Kitching Creek trail was gorgeous too. Great moment in a great place. Even enjoyed my microwaved cheeseburger and Gatorade at the park store.

    • Martin

      September 5, 2013 at 12:13 pm

      “Even enjoyed my microwaved cheeseburger…”


      • George Rogers

        September 5, 2013 at 12:18 pm

        You are invited to join me next time—burgers on me!

  3. Steve

    September 2, 2013 at 12:04 pm

    Boy they are blooming early this year, I always think of them as October wildflowers. I checked specimen details on the Florida Plant Atlas, and some collections date as early as June! (and August is not terribly uncommon) There is a collection from Woodbury supposedly from April 1988 (at JDSP), but I find this date to be dubious.

    Aren’t Salamanders and Maples in the same boat as Alligators & Lilies? (link to SE asian affinities to eastern NA)

  4. George Rogers

    September 3, 2013 at 7:42 am

    I remember coming upon a Catesby’s Lily in flower once in my Natives Plants class, and it runs spring-June, so that occurred probably well into June. As I was poking around Google writing the blog, I think somewhere I saw an incidental mention of sporadic early flowering. Maples definitely, and I’m sure salamanders too…the species pairs are remarkably numerous, basically leftovers from a once-continuous flora. There are a few droppings in CA too. What I’ve always wondered is how many eastern-Asian/eastern N. American disjuncts, if any, remain able to interbreed. Probably none or few, because any that could might be pretty well known.

  5. Martin

    September 5, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    This talk about the cross-ocean relations reminds me, for some reason, of the instances of the species that were “left behind” in the Smoky Mts by glacial retreat. I always thought that was very interesting. The spruce-hemlock forests, the huge salamander diversity and especially those beautiful brook trout. God, I love fishing up there for those little trout!

  6. George Rogers

    September 5, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    Oh totally so—let’s take a trip. I love it up there. (Grew up largely in W. Va.) My parents lived in NC near SM National Park, and it is a little piece of heaven (in good weather). My youngest son just moved there, not far from a trout site. It is amazing what “northern” species hide in those mountains.

  7. Mary Hart

    September 6, 2013 at 4:15 am

    In UK we have hardly any wild Lilaceae, (Snowdon lily being one – I believe it’s only found on the mountain of that name!) Gardens are a different matter – masses of them, and easy to grow – as you can see from my Facebook picture!!

  8. George Rogers

    September 6, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    Enjoyed learning a little about the alpine Snowdon Lily today. Speaking of Lilies with interesting distributions. If a Floridian wanted to see one, they could go east to Mt. Snowdon in Wales, or go west to the Rocky Mountains.


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