"Glacier lilies set standards in beauty and cultural importance. These charming flowers are the lights of spring, indicators of winter’s end, symbols of nutrition, yellow images of patience and longevity, and for me, a new and solid representation of pure human enchantment."
I was enchanted with the yellow glacier lily the first time I saw it, a flash of bright yellow among the brown and gray mix of meadow grasses and shrubs just starting to bud. The flower, nodding its head to the ground, six petals upturned towards the sky, was graceful and lovely. It was early April and I was following a trail along a high ridge in the Rattlesnake Wilderness when it captured my attention. I stepped off the trail and bent low to examine the solitary flower. The lily was delicate and slight, like bending arches, a contrast to the tall pines and dry grass that grew nearby. Its stamens pointed towards the ground and the bright green leaves formed spears jetting out from its base. I wondered about the lily, its uses and purpose on this high spot in the Montana mountains.
What I later found is that glacier lilies are ephemeral, living only ten weeks between first emergence and leaf fall. A perennial herb, the flower is also known as the dogtooth violet, fawn lily or avalanche lily and is native to western North American from southern British Columbia to northern California, and east to Alberta, Colorado and Wyoming. It overwinters as a corm, lying dormant under the frozen ground, and emerges soon after the snow melts on sagebrush slopes. In Montana, glacier lilies also regenerate by dropping their seeds gradually and slowly as the wind or animals disturb the flowers. In turn, the seeds require one hundred days of cold before they can germinate. Some individuals of the flower take eight years to reach full reproductive maturity.
Animals use the corms and seeds as a vital food source, as do human populations who have historically depended on the lily for both food and medicine. Native Canadians cherished the bulbs as a key component of their diet. The Blackfeet ate the corms fresh or with soup, and the dried bulbs of the glacier lily were a popular trade item between tribes. They can be eaten raw, like onions, but become sweeter and more pleasing to the tongue when roasted, boiled or glazed. The leaves are edible as well and the green seedpods taste like green beans when cooked.
Before going out to find the lily, the eager forager should know that yellow glacier lilies are very sensitive to disturbance and harvesting the corm will effectively kill the plant. Though native tribes practiced active management of the plant, the flower populations have been greatly reduced in size in areas and it is better to leave collection to animals of the forest than to gather them for novel use in soups or barbeques. In fact, the bulb of the glacier lily is essential to the grizzly bear’s diet in the spring. The bears will dig them up when other food is scarce and the nutritional content of the bulb is at its highest.
I think that, overall, to me, glacier lilies set standards in beauty and cultural importance. Indeed, this charming flower is multifarious; they are the lights of spring, indicators of winter’s end, symbols of nutrition, yellow images of patience and longevity, and for me, a new and solid representation of pure human enchantment.
"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.