Common wildflower names can be so confusing! The large lily genus, Calochortus, has several lovely flowers that look similar. Outside of the scientific community, the common names mariposa lily, sego lily, cats ear and star tulip (among others) seem to be interchangeably applied to these plants. This charming little flower, which I photographed along the Upper Rogue River below the Lost Creek Dam in Oregon, is Calochortus elegans. Elegant cats ear, elegant mariposa lily and elegant star tulip all are accepted common names for C. elegans. I personally call it elegant cats ear.
This native perennial can be found on grassy hillsides and in the open coniferous forests of California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. Elegant cats ear flowers have three sepals, three petals and six stamens. The broad, pointed ear-like petals are white to lavender in color with a naked (no hairs) purple crescent at the base. The petal is hairy all over except at the tip. The broad, hairy petals supposedly resemble cats’ ears. The short, unbranched flower stem, rarely more than 6″ above the ground, and one to several grasslike leaves arise from a round, starchy bulb. A field marking to separate elegant cats ear from look-alike Tolmie’s star tulip, C. tolmiei, is the lack of hairs on the tip of the petals. Tolmie’s has hairs on the petal tips.
The bulbs are edible either cooked or raw. Although I have eaten, and enjoyed, the bulbs of other Calochortus lilies, I never tried elegant cats ear. Each time I find elegant cats ears there are never enough plants to justify digging one up. I assume cats ear bulbs would be crisp, sweet and starchy like the other bulbs in this genus.
The genus name derives from the Greek – “kalo” meaning beautiful and “chorta” meaning grass – a perfect description.
Previously I did a post on another member of this genus, the mariposa lily.