The Western Red Lily is Saskatchewan’s floral emblem, and our province’s (Saskatchewan) only native lily species. This lily, Lilium philadelphicum variety andinum, has many common names, including the Red Lily, Flame Lily, Wood Lily, Tiger Lily or Prairie Lily.

It is also a lily of many faces, with a great deal of variation in the flowers of individual plants. Though we most often think of this lily as being a vibrant red-orange color, in fact, the color range and other flower characteristics of this species are quite variable.

There are two varieties of Lilium philadelphicum.

L. philadelphicum variety philadelphicum ranges from Kentucky to Maine, through a swatch of Ontario just north of the great lakes and through Manitoba, barely encroaching into the east side of Saskatchewan near The Pas, Manitoba. L.philadelphicum variety andinum grows primarily in western North America, ranging from eastern British Columbia to Western Ontario, and from northern Saskatchewan and Alberta south to Colorado, Indiana and Illinois. There is a fairly large area of Western Ontario and Manitoba where both varieties are present, and there are also areas where intermediate forms occur. Variety philadelphicum can be distinguished from variety andinum mainly by the leaves, which in philadelphicum occur in whorls, and in andinum occur singularly along the stem.

As is typical of lilies, flower parts of the Red Lily occur in threes or multiples of three. The three petals and three sepals are collectively referred to as tepals. There are six stamens. The pistil is tipped by a three lobed stigma and has a three-chambered ovary (which results in a three chambered seed pod) at its base.

As you can see in the photos petal and sepal shape varies, with some florets having a more open shape and longer claws. “Claw” is the name given to the narrow portion at the base of the petal or sepal that joins it to the base of the flower where it attaches to the peduncle, or flower stem. It is in the area above the claw, where the base of the sepal curls, that the nectar is found.

Flowers usually occur in shades of red, red-orange, salmon and many softer orange shades as well as yellow. They usually have a yellow section on the tepals just above the claws. This yellow area can be lightly or heavily spotted with the color of the spots ranging from brownish, to burgundy to reddish.

western red lily in pure yellow formwestern red lily stems in pure yellowMuch more rare are the pure spotless yellows, known as forma immaculatum. The photos at left and right are from the photo collection of the late Herb Sunley, our CPLS Founding President who was an avid photographer and lily person. He has labelled these photos as being taken by Cheryl Kelln, Lumsden SK, July 1995. As you can see, the flowers are spotless yellow with the stigma and anthers also yellow. Even the pollen is yellow on this particular flower.

The bulb of the Red Lily is smallish and white. On a large, mature blooming plant the bulb might be the size of a small walnut. The bulb is composed of many small scales, and some of the scales towards the outside of the bulb are jointed. The bulb scales detach fairly easily from the basal plate, and have the ability to form bulblets along their base, thus allowing the plant to reproduce itself even when voles or mice harvest parts of the bulb and move them to their nests. The base of a mature bulb will be situated at about 5 cm below the soil surface.

The Red Lily grows in a wide range of habitats, including slough margins, shrubby upland sites, highway ditches, under power lines and on railway embankments. The slough margins can often be a saline soil. The Red Lily can also be found at the edges of aspen bluffs and other wooded areas such as the slopes of river valleys and clearings in the boreal forest. They do not grow on cultivated land.

The Red Lily can be found blooming amidst a host of different native plants. In alkaline slough edges,smooth camas, wolf willow and saline shooting star are often its companions. In other areas, harebell, Hedysarum, purple milk vetch, wild roses and blazing stars accompany the Red Lily to make for colorful prairie scenes.

At right, various grasses as well as vetch, anemone and Indian paintbrush were a few of the companion plants growing alongside the occasional lilies. The upper photo was taken in an area of dappled shade at the edge of an aspen bluff at Honeywood Heritage Nursery. The lower photo was taken in a ditch which appeared to be fairly moist. Further along the road in a drier area, gaillardia, wild strawberries, bedstraw and goldenrod were companions to the lilies.

As well as being beautiful, the red lily is also an edible treat for many creatures. It has no natural protective bitter sap, or spines or dense hairs to offer protection from the various creatures that feed on it. Various caterpillars feed on leaves and flowers, as well as on seed pods. Mice and voles harvest the bulbs for winter provisions, and will also eat the above-ground parts of the plant. Deer bite off the tasty flowers and buds during the blooming season, and seed pods later on. People, too, have used the plant for purposes other than ornamental. Blackfoot, Assiniboine and Dakota as well as other First Nations used the bulb and other parts of the plant for food, as well as for medicinal purposes.

Though prairie fires are less common now than in the past, fire provides great renewal for the Red Lily. Fire acts as a cleanser by burning and thus reducing sources of diseases like botrytis. Fire helps to remove the thatch of dead grasses and plant material that can form over many years. Removal of this thatch removes mouse and vole habitat temporarily, thus giving lilies a reprieve from the attentions of these creatures. And so, with adequate moisture, after a fire entire fields of native grassland can be transformed to seas of crimson by blooming lilies.

This beautiful wildflower is protected by provincial legislation, so please enjoy it and photograph it where it grows.

by B. Adams-Eichendorf (CPLS Newsletter December 2017)

* Except for the photos of forma immaculatum all photos were taken in highway ditches north of Blaine Lake, SK and at Honeywood Heritage Nursery near Parkside, SK by the author.

Prairie Phoenix, The Red Lily in Saskatchewan by Bonnie Lawrence and Anna Leighton; Lilies: A Guide for Growers and Collectors by Edward McRae