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Liliaceae: Lily Family Plant Characteristics

Liliaceae
Lily Family
Key Words: Flowers with parts in threes. Sepals and petals usually identical.

      If you find a plant with parallel veins in the leaves and regular flowers with parts in multiples of three, chances are you have a member of the Lily family. The flowers have 3 sepals and 3 petals, usually identical in size and color. Any normal person would just say there are 6 petals, but botanists distinguish a difference. Starting from the outside of the flower you count towards the inside: sepals, petals, stamens and pistil. In Lilies, the first layer consists of 3 colored sepals, while the second layer consists of 3 colored petals. Such botanizing may seem overly academic, but it becomes important as you learn more complex family patterns.

      Members of the Lily family have 6 stamens, although some may be lacking anthers. The tip of the pistil, called the "stigma" is also noticeably 3-parted. You are most likely to confuse the Lily family with the Iris family, except that the Irises have only 3 stamens, and Iris leaves grow from the base in a flat plane, as if the plants have been squashed in a book. Worldwide there are about 250 genera and 3,700 species in the Lily family including 75 genera in North America.

      As you study plants and their relationships you will realize more and more that evolution isn't just an abstraction that happened in the past, but an active process that you can reach out and touch. For example, if one population of day lilies is similar but different from another population, then we have to decide if the differences constitute mere variations within a species, or a whole new species. This is kind of like trying to find the line between two neighboring cities. There might be a lot of difference downtown, but you could drive through the suburbs from one to the other without seeing the boundary. How do you know when you have crossed the line from one species into a new one?

      The same is true at the family level. Among the Lilies there is enough variation to justify breaking the family apart into smaller families of more closely related plants. For instance, daffodils are so different from the more typical lilies described here that they really deserve a family of their own. The trouble is that daffodils are closely related to plants that are closely related to other plants that are closely related to more typical Lilies. So where do you draw the line between one family and the other? In the effort to clearly distinguish these groups, botanists have proposed to break the Lily family up into as many as 70 distinct families, but to no avail. Recent genetic studies are helping to clear up the confusion, and will eventually require a complete rewrite of the family. In the interim, I rely on the historical subfamilies that work adequately to group the Lilies into their approximate relationships.

      Virtually everything in the Lily subfamily is edible, such as onions and blue camas, however, there are a few deadly plants in the Bunchflower subfamily (with bunches of little white or greenish flowers), like the death camas which could easily be mistaken for edible Lilies. For this reason, it is important to harvest lilies for food only when you can positively identify them, usually when in bloom.

      The Asparagus subfamily includes lilies that produce berries instead of dry seed capsules. Some of the berries are barely edible, while others are not. The Agave subfamily includes those spiny plants of the desert southwest, the agave, sotol and yucca, any of which can be used as a source of fiber for making cordage or rope. The Aloe subfamily includes the mucilaginous Aloe vera so favored for treating sunburns. The daffodil belongs to the Amaryllis subfamily.

Subfamilies of the Lily Family
Count the Sepals and Petals in each picture.
Bunchflower Subfamily | Lily Subfamily | Asparagus Subfamily | Onion Subfamily | | Agave Subfamily

Please e-mail Thomas J. Elpel to report mistakes or to inquire about purchasing high resolution photos of these plants.


Bunchflower Subfamily
These members of the Lily Family have little bunches of white flowers and some are deadly poisonous.

Zigadenus venenosus. Death camas.

Zigadenus venenosus. Death camas. Pony, Montana.

Zigadenus sp. Death Camas.

Zigadenus sp. Death Camas. Coleville, Washington.

Zigadenus elegans. Mountain Death camas.

Zigadenus elegans. Mountain Death camas.

Zigadenus elegans. Mountain Death camas.

Zigadenus elegans. Mountain Death Camas. Bridger Mountains. Near Bozeman, Montana.

Xerophyllum tenax. Beargrass.

Xerophyllum tenax. Beargrass. Yellowstone National Park.

Xerophyllum tenax. Beargrass.

Xerophyllum tenax. Beargrass. Yellowstone National Park.


Lily Subfamily
These members of the Lily Family usually have larger, more showy flowers. The roots produce bulbs like the tulip.

Camassia quamash. Blue camas.

Camassia quamash. Blue camas.

Camassia quamash. Blue camas.

Camassia quamash. Blue Camas.

Calochortus apiculatus. Sego Lily.

Calochortus apiculatus. Sego Lily. Near Glacier National Park. Montana.

Calochortus eurycarpus. Sego Lily.

Calochortus eurycarpus. Sego Lily.

Calochortus nuttallii. Sego Lily.

Calochortus nuttallii. Sego Lily. Montana.

Calochortus macrocarpus. Sagebrush Sego lily.

Calochortus macrocarpus. Sagebrush Sego lily.

Erythronium grandiflorum. Glacier Lily.

Erythronium grandiflorum. Glacier Lily.

Erythronium grandiflorum. Glacier Lily.

Erythronium grandiflorum. Glacier Lily.

Fritillaria atropurpurea. Chocolate Lily.

Fritillaria atropurpurea. Chocolate Lily.

Fritillaria atropurpurea. Chocolate Lily.

Fritillaria atropurpurea. Chocolate Lily.

Fritillaria pudica. Yellowbell.

Fritillaria pudica. Yellowbell.

Leucocrinum montanum. Sand Lily.

Leucocrinum montanum. Sand Lily. Tongue Reservoir. Eastern Montana.

Lilium columbianum. Columbia Tiger Lily.

Lilium columbianum. Columbia Tiger Lily.

Lilium columbianum. Columbia Tiger Lily.

Lilium columbianum. Columbia Tiger Lily.


Asparagus Subfamily
These members of the Lily Family produce their seeds in berries instead of capsules.

Clintonia uniflora. Queen's Cup.

Clintonia uniflora. Queen's Cup. Glacier National Park. Montana.

Maianthemum dilatatum. False Lily-of-the-Valley.

Maianthemum dilatatum. False Lily-of-the-Valley. Photographed along the northern California coast.

Maianthemum stellatum. Star Solomon's Seal.

Maianthemum stellatum. Star Solomon's Seal.

Maianthemum racemosum or Smilacina racemosa. Solomon's Plume.

Maianthemum racemosum. (a.k.a. Smilacina racemosa) Solomon's Plume.

Disporum hookeri. Hooker's Fairybell.

Disporum hookeri. Hooker's Fairybell.

Disporum smithii. Smith's Fairybells.

Disporum smithii. Smith's Fairybells. Photographed along the northern California coast.

Streptopus amplexifolius. Twisted Stalk.

Streptopus amplexifolius. Twisted Stalk.

 Streptopus amplexifolius. Twisted Stalk.

Streptopus amplexifolius. Twisted Stalk.

Asparagus officinalis. Asparagus.

Asparagus officinalis. Asparagus.

Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification
Botany in a Day
Trillium ovatum. Western White Trillium.

Trillium ovatum. Western White Trillium.

Trillium ovatum. Western White Trillium.

Trillium ovatum. Western White Trillium.


Onion Subfamily
These members of the Lily Family have their petals and sepals at least partially fused together and they have bulbed roots.

Allium sp. Wild Onions.

Allium sp. Wild Onions.

Allium sp. Wild Onions.

Allium sp. Wild Onions. Tobacco Root Mountains. Pony, Montana.

Allium schoenoprasum. Wild Onions or Wild Chives.

Allium schoenoprasum. Wild Onions or Wild Chives.

Allium schoenoprasum. Wild Onions or Wild Chives.

Allium schoenoprasum. Wild Onions or Wild Chives. This species grows high in the mountains.

Allium sp. Wild Onions.

Allium sp. Wild Onions.

Allium sp. Wild Onions.

Allium sp. Wild Onions.

Allium brevistylum. Shortstyle Wild Onion.

Allium brevistylum. Shortstyle Wild Onion.

Allium cernuum. Nodding Onion.

Allium cernuum. Nodding Onion.

Triteleia grandiflora. Brodiaea Lily.

Triteleia grandiflora. Brodiaea Lily.

Dichelostemma capitatum. Blue Dicks.

Dichelostemma capitatum. Blue Dicks. Arizona.


Agave Subfamily

Agave palmerii. Palmer's Agave.

Agave palmerii. Palmer's Agave. Near Portal, Arizona.

Dasylirion wheeleri. Sotol.

Dasylirion wheeleri. Sotol. Near Portal, Arizona.

Yucca glauca. Yucca.

Yucca glauca. Yucca. Red Rocks Park. Denver, Colorado. This is a hardy species of yucca that grows wild as far north as Montana.

Yucca elata. Soap Tree Yucca.

Yucca elata. Soap Tree Yucca. Near Portal, Arizona.

Yucca baccata. Banana Yucca.

Yucca baccata. Banana Yucca. Fort Bowie National Historic Monument. Arizona.

Yucca baccata. Banana Yucca.

Yucca baccata. Banana Yucca. Fort Bowie National Historic Monument. Arizona.

Nolina sp. Nolina.

Nolina sp. Nolina. Near Portal, Arizona.

Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification
Botany in a Day

There are more
Lily Family pictures
at PlantSystematics.org.

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