ONE OF THESE DAYS, when California realizes its manifest destiny to become an independent nation, there's at least one detail that won't have to be hashed out. The National Flower of California. We can keep the poppy as some kind of regional or local symbol, but it's pretty clear what California's First Flower will have to be. After you view this slide show, you can decide for yourself.

The genus Calochortus is one lots of people have never heard of, though it's a bit more well known by the name Mariposa Lily. The genus actually has several sections, and the largest and showiest species are called Mariposas. We'll look mostly at Mariposas, but we'll also glance briefly at the Globe Lilies or Fairy Lanterns and the Cat's Ears. These terms don't necessarily correspond to the latest taxonomic thinking, but they're certainly evocative.

The Calochortus are a funny bunch. 'Choosy' someone once called them, refering to their often extreme endemism. That is to say, you can walk, or drive, or hike for miles through apparently identical habitats, and never get a real sense for why a small patch of Mariposas decided to grow just here, and not somewhere else.

Calochortus extend all the way north into Canada, and south into Mexico; they are also found eastward beyond the Great Basin. But probably the 'epicenter' of Calochortus distribution is in California. Of the dozens of species in the genus, many live up to their reputation of being difficult to grow. Generally, these are the ones from habitats that are extremely different from most California coastal gardens. My experience is that the desert and alpine species are best enjoyed in situ, being at least for me nearly impossible to grow in Zone 17. However, as luck would have it, some of the showiest and most desirable ones grow in the Coast Ranges or the Sierra Foothills, and are perfectly happy here.

Just about the only firm requirement seems to be good drainage. Other than that, I have grown them successfully in both sandy and humus-based mixes, and they have thriven in both. They take their time from seed, often blooming from their 4th year onwards, but recently commercial growers have begun to make a few species available as mature bulbs at very reasonable prices. Another way to propagate them is by stem-bulbils. Many species form tiny bulbs in the axils of the stem-leaves, which can be used the next year to start new plants. These bulbils seem to often be much faster to bloom than seedlings of comparable size.

Well, without further adieu, let's meet some Calochortus.

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