Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Beautiful Bitter-ish Columbia Lily

Swallowtail Butterfly aren't alone in their affection for Columbia Lilies
After three seasons of cloudy drizzle, summer in the Pacific Northwest is a sunny dream. Butterflies flutter by the warm breeze, berries ripen, and the time passes all too quickly, despite prolonged days and lingering twilight. The retinue of snowy peaks along our homeland horizon scintillate as azure skies melt away their icy cloaks and sweet scented meadows sprout around eye-dazzling drifts. The mountains beckon and I must follow.

Getting anywhere on a small forest road is a challenge during this time of the year. With an arm on the windowsill, an ear cocked for bird calls, and an eye scanning the roadsides for plants, it is hard to cover much ground- berries must be picked, and gurgling brooks must be explored!

A true summer gem of sunny south-side slopes is one of our largest and showiest wildflowers, the Columbia or Tiger Lily (Lilium columbianum). The brilliant yellow-orange flowers bloom from May to August and are easy to spot from a distance. Perhaps the easiest places to reliably find them is the forest margin along mountain roads. Not only is their beauty a site to behold, but their bulbs are a bite to be sold! Both the roots and flowers of Columbia Lily are edible.

At 3-6 inches below the soil surface, the bulbs of Columbia Lily are almost impossible to unearth without a digging stick or trowel. I find the best method for removing them is to clear away any rocks next to the plant, and dig a hole beside the base of the stem to a depth of about 6 inches. Then thrust my digging stick into the ground on the side of the bulb opposite my hole and pry away the intervening soil with the encased bulb. Once out of the ground, the surrounding soil easily falls away from the starchy root.

A whorl of Columbia Lily leaves
Mature bulbs range in size from 1-2 inches tall and ¾-1.5 inches wide. They are comprised of a series of long narrow overlapping scales with white flesh that is covered by a thin skin. Flowering stalks are 2-5 feet tall, upright, with several whorls of 2-9 leaves. Flowers hang singly at the end of 2-5 inch long terminal or axillary stalks. Petals range from yellow to orange with dark spots (hence the name Tiger Lily) and have straight or recurved petals with showy exerted stamens that attract butterfly and human probosci alike. Both the common and scientific names refer to the Columbia River, where the first botanical specimen was collected by explorer/botanist David Douglas and surgeon/scientist William Fraser Tolmie in 1833.

Though Columbia Lilies are easiest to spot when they are flowering, they can be harvested throughout the growing season. The Nlaka'pamux (Thompson) traditionally harvest the bulbs anytime between May and August, but prefer to harvest the bulbs after the flowers have wilted (Turner et al. 1990). The northern Okanagan people traditionally harvest the bulbs in September, the Lakes Okanagan, in July and August, and the Southern Okananan, in both the spring and the fall (Turner et al. 1980). Erna Gunther reported that the Klallam harvest the bulbs in late fall but the Quileute and Quinault gather Tiger Lily at the same time as Camas (Camassia spp) [in May and June]; the Skagit collect Columbia Lily bulbs when they are flowering, or mark the area so that they can find the bulbs later in the fall when the plants have wilted away; the Skokomish dig them just after they have finished flowering (Gunther 1945).

Raw bulbs can be eaten immediately after they are harvested, but they have a bitter flavor. Traditionally, they are processed by some combination of leaving them to wilt in the sun for a few days, steaming, soaking, pit cooking, sun drying, and/or storing the bulbs for several months fresh or cooked before the bulbs are eaten. Though no scientific analysis has been done on the bitter tasting tannins in Columbia Lilies, I am willing to bet that the various methods of preparing Columbia Lilies help to reduce the tannin concentrations and sweeten the carbohydrates. When interviewed by Nancy Turner (et al 1990), Nlaka'pamux elder Louie Phillips noted that Columbia Lily bulbs were much more palatable after they were pit cooked, and even described the flavor as sweet—“like chocolates.”

A small Columbia Lily bulb
So far my casual experiments support my bitter starch flavor improvement hypothesis. The raw Columbia Lily bulbs that I have collected while flowering have all had a faintly sweet flavor with a strongly bitter after taste. Steamed for 20 minutes, the flavor of the bulbs improved considerably with a sweetness that was more intense and mild chestnut undertones. While there was still a bitter aftertaste, it is not nearly so powerful. The one bulb that I sun-dried for 2 days after I steamed it was even less bitter, but judging from ethnobotanical accounts, some degree of bitterness will always be present. The Nooksack name for Columbia Lily, Sxamelixwtsalh means “bitter on the tongue” (Galloway 2012), and the Nlaka'pamux reported that they are often bitter and therefore used as a condiment when cooking soups or puddings with a variety of roots, berries and animal fat or salmon eggs (Turner et al. 1990). I find the texture smooth and starchy like cooked Camas or damp corn starch and flavor similar to Northern Riceroot (Fritillaria camschatcensis) and Chocolate Lily (Fritillaria affinis). 

Columbia Lily distribution (CPNWH Data)
Columbia Lilies require a good deal of sun and moist, well-drained soil to thrive. They grow in prairies, clear cuts, roadsides, and avalanche chutes from the lowlands up to subalpine meadows throughout much of the Pacific Northwest. In British Columbia, these lilies are found from Prince George southward in the Columbia Mountains and Highlands to NE Washington, Northern Idaho, and the far NW corner of Montana. They are also found sporadically on both sides of BC’s Coast Range south of Mt. Waddington and the southern half of Vancouver Island (south of Sayward Junction). In the US, Columbia Lilies are found on both slopes of the Cascades, the Olympics, Coast Range (in Oregon) and Siskiyous. 

The Skagit specifically targeted areas that had recently burned for harvesting Columbia Lily bulbs and tilled in the dying foliage of the plants [and likely the seeds] after they dug the bulbs to ensure future yields (Gunther 1945). According to Martin Louie, the Colville deliberated managed areas with fire to increase the abundance of Columbia Lilies; he said the crop is best two years after a fire (Turner et al. 1980). It is interesting to note that the Quinault name for Columbia Lily, K'laka’ means “to slash it down” (Gunther 1945), which may also be a reference to the traditional system of removing trees to enhancing Columbia Lily patches.

Columbia Lily can hybridize with the closely related Leopard Lily (Lilium pardalinum ssp. vollmeri) and Wiggins’ Lily (Lilium pardalinum ssp. wigginsii) where their ranges overlap in the Siskiyous, or Washington Lily (Lilium washingtonianum) in northwestern California and Western Oregon. According to Mary Ike who was interviewed by Schenck and Gifford (1952), Leopard Lily was the most highly regarded bulb of the Karok.

Consortium of Pacific Northwest Herbaria. Search terms "Lilium columbianum" Accessed July 10, 2013.

Galloway, Brent 2012. Unpublished Classified Word List for the Nooksack ed 6x

Gunther, Erna 1945. Ethnobotany of Western Washington. University of Washington Press, Seattle WA.

Schenck, Sara M., and E. W. Gifford 1952. Karok Ethnobotany. Anthropology Records 13(6).

Turner, Nancy J., Randy Bouchard, Dorothy I. D. Kennedy 1980. Ethnobotany of the Okanagan-Collville Indians of British Columbia and Washington. British Columbia Provincial Musuem, Occasional Paper Series No. 21., Victoria BC.

Turner, Nancy J., Laurence C. Thompson, M. Terry Thompson, and Annie Z. York 1990. Thompson Ethnobotany, Knowledge and Usage of Plants by the Thompson Indians of British Columbia. Royal British Columbia Museum, Memoir No. 3, Victoria BC.

Turner, Nancy J. and Marcus A. M. Bell 1980. The Ethnobotany of the Coast Salish Indians of Vancouver Island. Economic Botany 25(1).

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