Category Archives: Catesby’s Lily

Alligators, Lilies, and Sino-American Unity

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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Catesby’s Lily—Eye Candy and Brain Teaser

Catesby’s Lily

Lilium catesbaei


First things first, who was Mark Catesby?  And why does that matter?  (It does, be patient.)  Born and educated in England, Mark (1682-1749) earned his mark exploring, documenting, and illustrating the natural history of the Southeast and the West Indies before the days of the mighty Linnaeus, whose work is the official beginning of plant nomenclature.  Mark Catesby’s “Natural History of Florida, Carolina, and the Bahama Islands” displayed the natural history of our area in engaging vivid color, in the early 18th Century.

Catesby’s Lily and “Wampum Snake” by Mark Catesby

The example above shows Catesby’s Lily etched by Mark himself along with a “Wampum Snake.”  The critter has gone through the nomenclatural mill since Catesby’s times, and appears to be what we’d now call a Banded Watersnake (Nerodia fasciata).  (Commentary on this identification is welcome.)  So here is the big deal:  MC brought together one of the showiest wildflowers of the Southeast with one of the most colorful books of the early 1700s.  Who needs a Canon with all those megapixels!?

Well, we do.  Compare Catesby ca.1743 with Bradford October 2011.  Enjoy the Gigapan taken yesterday at the Jupiter Wetland Trail by John, and play Find Waldo.  In a Gigapan you can move in and out and pan around with a little practice.  Catesby’s Lily is there for visual enjoyment.


What pollinates such a showpiece?  The main pollinator, at least in our place and time, seems to be the Palamedes (or Laurel Swallowtail) Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio palamedes). (CLICK)  There are other cases of butterflies being prominent pollinators on our native lilies.  And there is mystery here.

In a botany class we teach that a big showy flower is a large investment for a plant, and that flowers tend to fit the body sizes of their pollinators.  A textbook butterfly-pollinated flower might look like a tiny inverted witch’s hat half an inch tall.  Such flowers are usually clustered.  Think of Pentas or Butterfly-Bush.  We teach also that jumbo reddish or orangish flowers tend to serve hummingbirds.  So how is it that humble butterflies dominate these expensive, orange-red “bird” flowers bigger than a butterfly? And to throw in another curve, the petal (tepal) bases are narrowed sharply, leaving big gaps between them.  Such “clawed” petals occur occasionally in the floral world but are odd by Lily standards.  So what’s up with all that?  Now it is time to speculate.

Could it be that big reddish lilies adapted originally for bird visitation spawned descendants re-treaded secondarily to butterflies for reproductive services?  Could the history of Catesby’s Lily be something like that of a child who grew up to be a particle physicist, and drifted later in life to  selling  live bait?

Evolutionary biologists seek hints of earlier characteristics of any species by looking at the broader context of its relatives.  If you suspect the guy selling bait started out as a physicist, you might find it relevant that his mother, father, brother, and third cousin were Nobel Laureates.  Lilium has scores of species around the Northern Hemisphere.  Is bird-pollination commonplace among them?  Yes.

So could it be that habitats occupied by Catesby’s Lily became hummingbird-deficient during ancient times, steering originally bird-pollinated lineage down the butterfly path?  Palamedes Butterflies are common inhabitants of open wet places, so did they fill an ancient void?  Did the Lily and butterfly find each other as a “second marriage”?  (Lily-Swallowtail hookups are known to involve additional species.)

Catesby's Lily by JB

What about those unusual clawed petals?  Hummingbirds hover and poke big strong beaks into tubular petal arrangements.  But if a “bird” flowers gets a re-tread to become a “butterfly” flower it might have to adjust to the ways of a butterfly:  a butterfly lands and hangs on; it probes for nectar with a thin and delicate proboscis; its wings would not fit into a tubular shape but seem compatible with well separated petals.   Those grooves at the petal bases might help guide the proboscis.  A wild speculator might interpret the non-conventional petals to be a secondary adaption to the needs of the visiting butterfly.

Catesby’s Lily ranges across the southeastern Coastal Plain from the mid-Atlantic states to Louisiana.  The butterfly wanders similarly but more broadly, and its floral visits are not strictly the Lily.

To change the subject, the main larval host for our “Laurel” Swallowtails are Red Bay and relatives in the genus Persea, a genus persecuted by Laurel Wilt disease.  Oh oh:  the disease kills the Red Bays, which might impact the butterflies, which might impact Catesby’s Lily.  Hope not.

Lilium catesbaei occupies mostly wet pine woods, wet prairies, and similar open moist habitats.  It is generally reputed to decline if fire is suppressed and  to increase after burning, ducking hot times by means of bulbs safely below ground.  The beauty lures eager native plant gardeners like Papilio palamedes, and cultivation is possible, but the lily is particular and reputedly hard to grow.  Not often spotted in the garden world.  That’s ok—kinda nice just where it is.


Posted by on October 8, 2011 in Catesby's Lily



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