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Calochortus albus

Common name: White Fairy Lantern, Indian Bells, Alabaster Tulip

I’ve yet to find fairies… but I did find their lanterns! The White Fairy Lantern (Calochortus albus), to be more precise. I actually didn’t expect to find this beautiful wildflower easily – but as luck would have it, on a hike with my friend Peter in the Laguna Mountains, I stumbled upon a nice patch of them. Some of them grew right along the trail.

I didn’t have my macro lens with me on that day but still got a nice close-up by using an extension tube (first photo below, previously shared in my “Floral Meditations” series this year). And since that patch was just beginning to bloom, I returned with Shuwen a week later, and then photographed the flowers more thoroughly. That was in May. And now I’ve finally gotten around to evaluate and develop the photos.

Here in San Diego County, Calochortus albus grows mostly at the higher elevations of our mountain ranges – Palomar, Cuyamaca, Laguna. According to CalFlora, Calochortus albus is native and endemic to California. Looking at the distribution map, I find it hard to believe that there would be such a sharp “cutoff” – the southernmost observation near the border to Mexico is from 1924 – perhaps its range extended into Mexico once and it fell victim to urban sprawl? Or perhaps it’s still growing somewhere at the higher elevations of Baja – the Sierra San Pedro De Martir is pretty high, and not unlike Southern California’s mountain ranges. I’m just speculating, of course.

Of the many common names that the little flower in the Lily family has been given, I like White Fairy Lantern the most – it is both cute, and most fitting. Other common names are referring to varieties that are different in color, like Pink Fairy Lantern (none of them officially recognized though), some of them are complete misnomers, like Snow Drops — the proper Snow Drop, Galanthus species, is in the Amaryllis family — some of them of course adding a hint of folklore (Indian Bells).

Most of these common names combine variations of the shape (bell, lantern, globe), color (white, satin, alabaster) or family (Lily, Tulip). Take these ingredients, mix them thoroughly, and make your own common name! Thank goodness for scientific names – even though Calochortus albus doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue smoothly… :-D

The entire Calochortus genus contains quite some really pretty flowers, actually — others that I photographed around here would be Weed’s Mariposa Lily (Calochortus weedii), Plain Mariposa Lily (Calochortus invenustus) and Splendid Mariposa Lily (Calochortus splendens). They’re all not that easy to photograph, because their sheer size and depth competes with my goal to have a rather small depth of field with good background blur (aka “bokeh”).

Calochortus albus differs from all of them though because its flowers are not upright, but pendent. They also hide their pistil and stamens entirely from view, inside the delicate three pearly-white, sometimes pink-tinged petals – only when the petals wither (see photo below) one gets a glimpse at the anthers. If you want to learn more, the Wikipedia page for Calochortus albus is very detailed, actually.

Here are my photos:

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2 thoughts on “Calochortus albus”

  1. Wow…. one of my very favorite wildflowers! So beautifully captured. I especially like the light in the third one.

    Its always amazing to me that some of the varieties thrive in such barren, inhospitable soil – it’s always such a joy to spot them.

    • Thanks Chloe! The soil up in the Laguna Mountains isn’t as barren (and baked) as it is at the lower elevations – seems like the bulbs of the Fairy Lanterns like it up there. :-)


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