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Calochortus luteus blooming on serpentine grassland, Snell Valley, Napa County, California

Yellow Mariposa Lily
Calochortus luteus

C. Michael Hogan PhD
May 17, 2009

The upright bright yellow hermaphroditic flower of C. luteus appears in showy contrast to grasslands turning brown from April to June. This California endemic may occur on coastal prairies as well as foothill grasslands and mixed forests. Although this wildflower is secure in conservation status, it is likely that prehistoric populations were larger, since present California habitats typically exhibit dramatically enhanced populations of non-native grasses compared to the early 1700s prior to European settlement.


C. luteus with petals beginning to enclose toward the end of day.
The plant exhibits a slender stem emanating from a base bulblet, that attains a height of 20 to 50 cm.(Munz) The basal leaves are persistent and extend from 10 to 20 cm. There are one to seven bowl shaped flowers per plant, (Jepson) with bracts that reach one to eight cm. Petals open wide in the daytime and enclose when light intensity lessens in the late afternoon. There are three long narrow tapered sepals two to three cm wide, and may be straight, recurved or coiled; (Gerritsen) the three deep yellow petals are each 2.5 to 5 cm wide. Each petal has red stippling below, with individual variation comprising endless patterns. Petals are fan shaped at the tip. (Beidleman) Pale yellow anthers are eight to ten mm in extent. (Abrams) The oblong to crescent shaped nectary is coated with sparse short slender hairs. This nectary is the best diagnostic to distinguish C. superba, which has a squarish nectary geometry. A red-brown blotch usually is present near the inside center of each petal. Fruits are erect, three to six cm, and their shape is angled and narrowly lanceolate.


This California endemic is found in the coastal counties from Humboldt to Ventura. Inland it is found from Tehama County (Payne's Creek and Dye Creek watersheds) southward through the Sierra Nevada Foothills and Sacramento Valley as far south as the Greenhorn Mountains of Kern County; moreover, it is found at the Channel Islands National Park. From historical accounts it is possible that C. luteus had a broader range in the western USA, including occurrence on Fremont Island within the Great Salt Lake. (Domenech)

Specific example locales for populations of C. luteus include: Santa Clara County: Henry W. Coe State Park; Nevada and Yuba Counties: Spenceville Wildlife Area; Monterey County: Elkhorn Slough; San Francisco County: Bernal Hill; Alameda County: Sausal Creek; Napa County: Knoxville Wildlife Area and Missimer Wildflower Preserve; Marin County: Mount Tamalpais State Park; Glenn and Colusa Counties: Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge; Butte County: Big Chico Creek; San Benito County: Panoche Pass; Tulare County: Lime Kiln Creek; Sutter County: Sutter Buttes; Tuolumne County: Table Mountain; Sacramento County: Mather Field.


C. luteus thrives in sandy or loamy soils which are well drained, and is highly adaptable to variable pH ranges spanning alkali to acidic regimes. This species is drought tolerant, but does not thrive in deeply shaded conditions. Yellow Mariposa Lily (also known by the common name Gold Nuggets) may be found at elevations under 600 meters in coastal prairie, grassland, oak savanna, mixed oak woodland and mixed-evergreen forest. C luteus thrives in many of the same sun drenched rocky habitats as C. venustus. Typical dominant oaks in the overstory of forest clearings and savanna include Blue Oak, Quercus douglasii. (Hogan).

In oak woodland settings typical understory associates include Cynoglossum grande, Triteliaea laxa, Mimulus aurantiacus, Calochortus amabilis, Delphinium variegatum and Clarkia unguiculata. In Inner North Coast Range grasslands typical forb associates are Castilleja rubicundula, Holocarpha virgata, Lomatium macrocarpum and Navarretia jepsonii. On coastal prairie grassland, example characteristic associates are Danthonia californica, Deschampsia caespitosa, Cirsium quercetorum, Lotus formosissimus, Sidalcea malvaeflora, Brodiaea terrestris, Dodocatheon clevelandii, Triteleia hycinthina, Juncus bufonius and Lupinus nanus.

Flower nectar of C. luteus is collected by hummingbirds, butterflies, and a variety of insects, while seed pods are eaten by various wildlife species. Pollination is conducted by insects; moreover, some insects will lurk in the flower bowl to prey upon other insect pollinators. Gold Nuggets can reproduce asexually by means of small "bulblets" in the leaf axils, which fall to the ground and grow into new plants. As a food source Native Americans consumed the walnut sized bulb, (Moerman) it being both palatable and nutritious.


David Douglas was the first to collect and name C. luteus, although John Lindley first described the species in 1834. Historically the name Calochortus luteus was later applied by Nuttall to the species C. nuttallii, but that species name was changed in 1852 by John Torrey, since the species name C. luteus had been originally coined by Douglas. C. luteus hybridizes in the wild with C. superbus.


* Philip Alexander Munz, Dianne Lake and Phyllis M. Faber. 2004. Introduction to California spring wildflowers, University of California Press, 291 pages ISBN 0520236343
* Jepson Manual. 1993. Calochortus luteus, University of California, Berkeley
* Mary E. Gerritsen and Ron Parsons. 2007. Calochortus: Mariposa Lilies and Their Relatives,
Timber Press, 232 pages ISBN 0881928445
* Linda H. Beidleman and Eugene N. Kozloff. 2003. Plants of the San Francisco Bay region: Mendocino to Monterey, University of California Press, 504 pages ISBN 0520231732
* Le Roy Abrams and Roxana Stinchfield Ferris. 1923. An illustrated flora of the Pacific States: Washington, Oregon, and California, Stanford University Press, 568 pages ISBN 0804700036
* Emmanuel Domenech. 1860. Seven years residence in the great deserts of North America, vol.1, published by Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts
* C. Michael Hogan. 2008. Blue Oak: Quercus douglasii, GlobalTwitcher, ed.N.Stromberg
* Daniel E.Moerman. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany, Timber Press. Oregon. ISBN 0-88192-453-9
Kingdom Plantae
Phylum Magnoliophyta
Flowering plants
Class Liliopsida
Order Liliales
Family Liliaceae
Lily family
Juss., nom. cons.
Genus Calochortus
Mariposa Lily
Species luteus
Yellow Mariposa Lily
Dougl. ex Lindl.
This page was last updated 2008-12-02 21:28:13
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