By: Bob Brett
Date: June 1, 2001
It’s not often I get to use one of my favourite words: liliaceous. Great word, huh? It doesn’t just categorize members in the lily family, it makes them sound so, well, luscious.
And luscious they are. Sleek green leaves, accented by parallel veins running from one end to the other like lines of longitude. Stunning blossoms in multiples of three: three or six petals, three or six stamens. All anatomic triads save for that rebel, false lily-of-the-valley (which for some reason has four of everything).
Liliaceous also sounds a lot like delicious, which lilies like onions and asparagus are. You can find wild nodding onion on dry grassy slopes on the coast and in Pemberton, and asparagus has leapt the garden fence to naturalize in drier parts of the BC Interior. Another wild lily, camas, was once an important staple foods of coastal First Nations.
While most of our local lilies aren’t particularly nutritious (and some are downright toxic), they certainly don’t lack for beauty. Just picture tiger lily, queen’s cup, star-flowered and false Solomon’s seal, twistedstalk, and fairybells. High on the mountain, there’s tiny yellow glacier lily with its swept-back petals, and the majestic but deadly Indian hellebore with its huge, parallel-pleated leaves.
All these beautiful flowers are members of the lily family. Grouping them together distinguishes them from other plants, and also helps identify individual species. Too bad so few people use plant families to help them identify the plants they’re seeing.
In contrast, people instinctively group mammals by families – even youngsters know their pet dog is in the same family as coyotes and wolves. It may not seem as instinctive to group plants into families, but it’s the same idea.
You can remember lilies by their parallel veins and flower parts in multiples of (usually) three. Mustards have four petals, often in the shape of a Maltese cross. Pea flowers look like inflated butterflies – picture garden peas and beans, or lupines and broom. The flowers and seeds of plants in the carrot family are carried on an umbel, shaped like the wires holding up an umbrella.
Most field guides group plants by colour, and that’s a good start. But to really start learning flowers, and to simplify your classification of them over the long term, try learning some major plant families. For help, refer to our best local field guide: Plants of Coastal BC by Pojar and MacKinnon (available at the Library and Armchair Books).
Not all plant families can be identified by such a great adjective as liliaceous (mustardaceous just doesn’t cut it). But recognizing at least some families will help you make sense of the hundreds of luscious local species.