Nature Notes: A Lily by Any Other Name
Vicki Bustamante of Montauk is a naturalist of the old school, well-versed in both flora and fauna.
I’ve been with her on several Christmas bird counts and if it weren’t for her fine ears and excellent eyesight, I, who kept the list, would have finished with a paltry one.
She can propagate just about any native plant. If she hasn’t grown it from a cutting, seed, or shoot, it’s probably because she has yet to see it. I told her about a group of persimmons growing in Northwest and she went there, found some fruit, and within a year she was growing persimmons. She is adept at finding species that don’t belong on Long Island, such as the alternate-leaved dogwood she discovered amid a tangle of brush and other trees next to the state parkway to the Montauk Lighthouse.
She can do the opposite as well. I told her about the only green ash trees I knew growing wild on the South Fork. She went to the spot, the house next to Oyster Pond west of the Lighthouse, looked at the trees, spoke to the occupant. I was right; they were green ashes. But I was wrong about them growing wild; they were planted by members of the Lindley family, who once lived there.
Her latest discovery, although perhaps not original, blew my mind: a carpet of trout lilies stretching almost as far as the eye could see near Big Reed Pond, east of Lake Montauk and west of Oyster Pond. I’d reconnoitered that very same area on many occasions looking for a trillium that Jim Ash had found growing there. I found neither the trillium nor the trout lilies. Not that these lilies, Erythronium americanum, are rare throughout the Northeast. In fact they are quite common, but not on Long Island. Dennis Magee and Harry Ahles in their “Flora of the Northeast” don’t include them on their Long Island range map, but show many spots where they grow in New England.
Fernald’s “Gray’s Manual of Botany,” for a half a century the college botany textbook of choice covering eastern America, lists Erythronium americanum as occurring on Long Island (“L.I.”) and Homer House’s 1923 “Wildflowers of New York State” includes it along with a very nice color plate. But Norman Taylor, who wrote the definitive work on the plants of Montauk in the same year, “The Vegetation of Long Island Part 1: The Vegetation of Montauk,” did not include it in his list of lily species found there. He did include three species in the genus Lilium, only one of which, the Turk’s-cap-lily, can be found there today.
There are at least 23 species in the genus Erythronium in North America, most of which are western. The most common one in the West is the dogtooth violet, a misnomer borrowed from the only European species in the genus, which is violet. Its flower is yellow like the trout lily’s. These two species cover all of the West and all of the East, respectively, not quite meeting up with each other in the middle of the country.
The name trout lily is said to come from the spotted and blotched green leaves, resembling the spotted and blotchiness of the native brook trout of the east. The one that Vicki found and photographed is also called the fawn lily, again, having to do with the spottiness of the leaves. In some parts it is known as the adder’s-tongue lily, according the flower’s protruding dark-tipped stamens.
One of the unusual characteristics of the yellow trout lily is its ability to colonize a very large area starting with one plant that sends out underground stems, rhizomes, to start another one the next year and so on in all directions until there is monoculture carpet. Thus, one may find only a few flowers per acre. It does produce seed, but the underground reproduction is much quicker and much less subject to predation by foraging animals, say, deer, which do a job on lilies and orchids in general. Who needs flowers and seeds, when the alternative is better? Phragmites and many other invasives use the same monoclonal asexual technique to take over a territory.
A white-flowered species, Erythronium albidum, has similar reproductive abilities, but is much less common, and, as far as I know, does not occur on Long Island, although it grows throughout much of eastern North America. Its scarcity may have to do with its widely known medicinal properties. It has been used as an emetic, treatment for gout, and a wound healer when used in a compress. Certain American Indian groups used it as a contraceptive. Onondaga women would chew on the leaves in the spring to avoid birthing in the frigid winter. This medicinal use is not so different than the use of certain orchid species by Australian aborigine women to limit reproduction.
The yellow trout lily of Montauk may have similar properties. Thus it is a pity that it thrives only in the early spring, after which, the leaves shrivel up. If it were abundant nine months of the year as some other herbs are, possibly, we wouldn’t have as many deer around as we do now.
I have to stop, my gout is killing me.