Glacier Lily

Erythronium grandiflorum (Liliaceae)

Photo from RMBL Archives
Description and Taxonomy
This wild relative of the garden tulip, also known as the yellow avalanche lily or dogtooth violet, occupies mountainous elevations of western North America. The pendent flowers have six large, showy yellow “petals”(more technically, tepals) that are abruptly bent backward toward the base. Mature plants typically make 2 leaves and 0-3 flowers. The fruits are cylindrical, three-chambered capsules, containing up to 60 large seeds if well-pollinated. By late July, the leaves have withered, and the plant overwinters from August to June as an underground corm similar to a tulip bulb.

Distribution and Habitat
Glacier lilies thrive in subalpine meadows from northern California and southern Colorado to southern British Columbia and southwestern Alberta. They bloom as the snow melts, following the snow line as it recedes up slopes in the spring (see photo at right).

Ecological Relationships
Glacier lilies provide food for a variety of animals, including pocket gophers, mule deer, elk, and bighorn sheep. Grizzly and black bears may affect plant distribution by foraging on the corms; aboriginal humans also used corms as food. Bumble bee queens are the principal pollinators.


Status and Conservation
Because the glacier lily blooms so early, it suffers reduced pollination in years of early snowmelt. Such dislocations of flowering from pollinator activity are likely to become more common as climates warm, but the plant is fairly well buffered against pollination deficits by its decades-long lifespan and the ability of the corms to bank resources during good years.

In this CPR radio spot, RMBL researcher Dr. James Thomson is finding that glacier lilies are affected by climate change.

Highlighted RMBL Research
Hammerlynck, E. P. and W. K. Smith. 1994. Subnivean and emergent microclimate, photosynthesis, and growth in Erythronium grandiflorum Pursh, a snowback geophyte. Arctic and Alpine Research (26) 21-28.

Lambert, A. M., A. J. Miller-Rushing, and D. W. Inouye. 2010. Changes in snowmelt date and summer precipitation affect the flowering phenology of Erythronium grandiflorum (glacier lily; Liliaceae). Am. J. Bot. (97) 1431-1437.

Lambrecht, S. C., M. E. Loik, D. W. Inouye, and J. Harte. 2007. Reproductive and physiological responses to simulated climate warming for four subalpine species. New Phytologist (173) 121-134.

Thomson, J. D. 1986. Pollen transport and deposition by bumble bees in Erythronium: influences of floral nectar and bee grooming. Journal of Ecology (74) 329-341.

Thomson, J. D. 2010. Flowering phenology, fruiting success and progressive deterioration of pollination in an early-flowering geophyte. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (365) 3187-3199.

Thomson, J. D., G. Weiblen, B. A. Thomson, S. Alfaro, and P. Legendre. 1996. Untangling multiple factors in spatial distributions: Lilies, gophers, and rocks. Ecology (77) 1698-1715.

Encyclopedia of Life
Learn more about Erythronium grandiflorum at the Encyclopedia of Life.

Many thanks to Meri Pardo and Dr. Pat Magee at Western State College for this submission, and to RMBL Researcher Dr. James Thomson of the University of Toronto for his review and additions.