Thursday, October 29, 2009

Afternoon Of The Fawn Lilies

Before hardwood forests begin to leaf in spring, Fawn Lilies grace the forest floor.  I'll never forget the first time I saw them.  I was a college student at the time, hiking with a friend.  As we explored a small stream in the foothills of east Tennessee, we came upon the charming yellow blossoms of Erythronium americanum nodding in the breeze and reflecting the dappled sunlight.  Enchanted, we stopped to sit and enjoy them for awhile.  I remember it as the afternoon of the fawn lilies.

Erythronium (pronounced er-ih-THROH-ni-um) refers to the reddish stems or mottling on the leaves on most of the species.  Native to parts of Asia, Europe and North America, they are also characterized by bell-shaped flowers (usually yellow) with recurved petals. Common names also include Dog-Tooth Violet, Trout Lily, and Deer-Tongue.  The most widely available species is E. revolutum.  "Revolutum" (pronounced re-voh-LOO-tum) refers to the petals which appear rolled back.  It can be found growing wild in most of eastern North America.  The most popular cultivar is 'Pagoda', a hybrid of E. tuolumnense, a California native, and E. revolutum.

Fawn Lilies are not believed to possess any medicinal qualities.  But N. J. Turner in Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples reported that American Indians used to harvest the bulbs for food.  They must have done so when food was otherwise scarce for the bulbs have a bitter taste.  Aboriginal diners washed them down with water to avoid feeling sick.  (Reminds me of my childhood experience with soy burgers.)  I haven't tried them myself, and don't recommend you do so either.

Erythronium x 'Pagoda' produces 3 to 5 yellow flowers on reddish stalks up to 12" tall.  It prefers partial shade in climate zones 3 through 9, and consistently moist soil that is high in organic matter with pH ranging from 5.1 to 7.5.

As always, take a sample of your garden soil to your local Cooperative Extension Service office before planting.  For a nominal fee, they will send the sample to a lab for analysis.  The analysis will normally be sent to you through the mail.  If the test results seem somewhat cryptic and difficult to understand, don't hesitate to call your County Agent for explanation.

Planting begins in fall, and must be done soon after you receive them.  They will not be happy if left to dry out.

Unless you are naturalizing them in the lawn, prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 8" deep, removing all traces of weeds.  A good all-around practice for bulbs and such is to mix 5 tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer and 2 cups of bone meal per ten square feet area of bulb garden.  Repeat the application when growth appears, but be careful that fertilizer does not come into direct contact with plant tissue.

Plant the bulbs about 5" deep.  Depth is measured to the bottom of the hole.  Recommended plant spacing is 3".

The plants require very little maintenance.  Plant them and forget about them.  They are wonderful for bulb gardens, perennial gardens, container gardens as well as for naturalizing in woodland and shade gardens.  When they bloom in the spring and nod their heads in the breeze, each day will bring new delights.  Be sure to include them in your garden, and enjoy spring afternoons among your fawn lilies.

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