JUST ONE: Fawn lily

Spring proceeds on its own schedule, without effort or hindrance. It may be wetter or slower or colder than we think it should be, but those notions are just concepts that we layer onto our experience. Spring doesn’t listen to that. Without considering our opinions or preferences, buds open, birds sing, frogs lay eggs, insects buzz…

…and the flowers, the flowers. Lately one in particular enchants me: the Fawn lily, Erythronium oregonum.

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Clean and delicate, the elegant, six-petaled lilies appear in early to mid-spring, in moist woodlands or prairies from northwest California to British Columbia. About two dozen other species of Erythronium occur in the United States, Japan, China, Russia, Iran and the Caucasus. Like tulips, they are members of the Lily family. Generally, lilies have flower parts arranged in threes, grow from bulbs and flourish in temperate regions. Their simplicity of form is very appealing.

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The Fawn lilies here on Fidalgo Island have been beautiful. Last April I was away almost all month and the April before that, I didn’t live here, so this is my first April on Fidalgo Island. It’s been a month of discoveries and finding dozens of graceful Fawn lilies in parks and preserves near home has been thrilling.

The flowers I admire today have taken years to come into bloom; they’re nothing like the sprouts you might grow at home or grass seed that greens up a lawn in a matter of days. I could begin the cycle anywhere but I’ll start with January, when the winds of winter have their way with branches, leaves, bark chunks, needles, cones and lichen scraps, sending them all raining down onto the forest floor where they slowly decompose. In March the ground is still a chaotic tangle of broken fragments holding little promise. But deep under the soil, Fawn lily seeds are busy growing. The first visible effort isn’t very dramatic – just one small leaf will emerge, probably during the wet weather of autumn. But the leaf will grow, and so will the bulb.

The next year another leaf will emerge, this time a little bigger. Below the leaf, the seed will have fattened into a small corm or bulb, which gradually pushes downward to a deeper, safer place where it’s less likely to be dug up and eaten or dry out in the summer. That downward motion is accomplished with specialized contractile roots that pull the bulb down into the soil instead of taking up water and minerals. As this cycle repeats the result is a bigger leaf, a bigger bulb, and a stronger plant each year.

Finally, the plant gathers sufficient energy to produce a flower. If the flower survives it may be pollinated, most likely by a bee. Successful pollination will lead to seed formation and dispersal and with their work done, the leaves will wither in the summer heat, releasing their nutrients back into the soil. Some of the seeds will land in just the right places to begin the cycle anew.

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6. The name “Fawn lily” supposedly derives from the resemblance of the leaf patterns to a fawn’s coat. An intriguing theory about why the leaves are mottled brown and green states that the darker (brown) areas may help absorb more heat from low, late-winter sunlight.

7. The leaves are lovely but the prize is the flower and eventually, it appears.



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Spending time among the Fawn lilies, photographing them and working out different ways to process the images deepens my appreciation for them. They won’t be in flower much longer. Like many Spring ephemerals, they take advantage of the light on the forest floor that is present before many plants leaf out. They flower before the light is reduced, fading away over the summer and coming alive again in the cool, wet, early months of the year. Late next winter I’ll search for those distinctively mottled leaves in anticipation of enjoying the delicate white stars of the forest again.

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In saying that spring follows its own schedule and pays no attention to what we might be thinking, I don’t mean to imply that our actions have no impact on the climate, the environment, and thus on spring itself. What we do and how we are involved with life on earth matters.

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77 comments

    • Thank you, Hein, what a nice thing to say. I bet you would have fun photographing this flower! (You might find a yellow relative, the Yellow trout lily, in New Jersey woodlands).

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  1. What a wonderful opening shot. No context; only essence. . . . And there (#2) is the context. Now we have a notion of how big a Fawn Lily might be. (Bigger than a Trout Lily, I think.) . . . Another delightful essence rendered more abstractly in black and white in #3. . . . Oh, #4 seems playful. I think yellow is a playful color, not very serious. And there are two lilies, so they can joke with each other. . . . Hmm, #5 makes the flower look more the size of a trout lily. . . . And a close-up of the leaf! What a nice idea; what a nice leaf! The dew is a charming touch. . . . Black and white enhances the simplicity of form in #7. . . . I like the rich dark tones of #s 8 and 9. . . . There you go with your masterful use of short depth of field in #10. . . . A surprise of line and color in #13. . . . I’ve probably written enough here. They are all lovely photos, Lynn, and your narrative, as always, is supportive without being didactic.

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    • Linda, thank you. As you know, I rewrite and rewrite, so the last part of your comment is very much appreciated. I think these may be slightly bigger than Trout lilies…and the whiteness would make them look bigger too, right? They stand out in the woods so beautifully – an obvious presence but still graceful. I played around a lot with different processing styles and loved the happiness of the colors in #4. Your take was that it’s playful; that works for me. The leaves, as you’d guess, are infinitely varied. One could do a series just of them. The leaves and flowers of this pant are both such great subjects. Thank you!

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  2. Easy to see why you’re drawn to this wildflower, and it repaid you in offering itself up for some lovely photographic portraits. Fidalgo with its fawn lilies, Texas with its rain lilies.

    Your first sentence reminded me of the old-fashioned (and redundant) phrase “without let or hindrance.”

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    • Rain lilies! THey’re beautiful – naturally, bigger and more flamboyant, being in Texas. πŸ˜‰ Both are great subjects. That’s interesting about the old British phrase – I had not heard it and looked it up. Like so many earlier words and phrases, it has a nice, slightly poetic sound. Thanks, Steve!

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  3. The singularity of the development of this plant until the appearance of the flower is really a magnificent story. So interesting as the photographic sequence that reveals the beauty and simplicity of this flower. And leaves! They are strange but also beautiful!
    Thank you for another history of nature.

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    • I guess you could say there’s a tension between the complexity of the flower’s growth cycle and its formal simplicity if that’s not getting too obscure. πŸ™‚
      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Dulce, and I hope you and your family are all doing well. πŸ™‚

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  4. Magnificent. Perhaps my favorite series of yours ever. I can’t pick a favorite. 3, 4, 10, 13-18. Too many! I suppose if I had to pick one for my wall it would be 16. And your essay is beautifully written and illuminating. Wow.

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    • That’s exciting to hear, Michael, thank you very much. In #3 there was a strange effect of the stem showing through another flower in the foreground. I’m not sure why that happened but you probably noticed it. We’ve had California-style sun lately so I took advantage of the shadow mimicking the stem’s curve in #14. And obviously, I played with the processing in many of these. The simple form lends itself to different interpretations. What I take away from your focus on # 16 is that it’s always good to include emotion, story-telling, or some way viewers can enter the photo imaginatively. I think that photo has that quality. Thanks so much, and be well!

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      • And thank you, again. As I said. They are all wonderful, but for me 16 has the most staying power if you were on my wall I would look at it again and again and again. It’s the fact that it does not scream out. It’s just there, quietly elegant, confidently awaiting discovery. Waiting for the moment to tell its story.

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  5. What a beautiful meditation on a shy and graceful plant. I had no idea of its life cycle, so thank you for sharing that, Lynn. The photos are exquisite, as always, and captured the dainty elegance of this plant so perfectly. Oh the richness and textured greens of the moss and leaves in #9, but the close look at the bloom in #13 captured my heart. Thank you for sharing such beauty in such difficult days.

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    • You might have Yellow trout lilies, a relative, near you….or maybe you’ve planted one of the Erythroniums at some point. I’m pleased that you appreciated the growth cycle bit. πŸ™‚ The flower in #9 was the first I found this year, at a preserve co-managed by a local tribe and the state. It had rained that morning and the flowers were soaked. We had a fabulous early spring for moss, as you can see. There was abundant rain and now, no rain for two weeks. Crazy. But whatever goes on with the weather, nature is still our refuge. Happy Spring, Lynn. Enjoy the garden and stay healthy and creative.

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    • Oh good, Alison, I’m glad you enjoyed the post and appreciated the writing. These flowers are just the best subjects! I had fun. And I will keep having fun! πŸ™‚ Take care and enjoy the season. πŸ™‚

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  6. From your title, I was half-expecting to see just one photograph, but I think I know you better than that. And it would have been a real challenge to do this little beauty justice with just one image. You obviously spent considerable time with them, and it paid off. Another new one for me!

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    • Ha ha, just one photo from me, that would be amazing! I can’t do it. I work and work at culling but always have lots to share. Yes, you know me. (And “JUST ONE” is a series I’m doing on local flora). I did spend time with them, in person and at home. Hopefully, I learned something. πŸ˜‰ Thank you very much…I appreciate it.

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  7. Another completely new plant for me, and you present it in a breathtaking way, intense, isolated, shimmering out of the dark like the new world you have now opened for me, dear Lynn.
    There is a German name for the only European species of Erythronium which is far less fairytalelike than fawn lily: Hundszahn (Dog’s Tooth). It is found in the more mountanous environments.
    The way you show this dear, graceful lily is like telling us a fairy tale. Full of poetry and secret knowledge and much more beautiful than real life.
    Thank you.

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    • There are some Erythroniums in the nursery trade here, and they might even be your Dog Tooth lily! It’s called the DogTooth violet here. It’s usually pink. I’m not surprised that it would be in the mountains. πŸ™‚ There’s an eastern North American species also called Dog Tooth violet, which may have been named by German settlers. who knows? I like the idea of a fairy tale – especially a German fairy tale. They’re quite poetic when you see them in the woods; that is exactly the right word for it. Shimmering out of the dark describes the way I often see them, too. Thank you for being so receptive, and generous in your comments, dear Ule. Enjoy your indoors (food, art, books, projects, music…) and outdoors (garden, village, fields, sheep, etc.)! πŸ™‚

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  8. Lovely pictures, Lynn, and I very much like “but those notions are just concepts that we layer onto our experience.” – yes, absolutely! Here, I like 1, 3, 9, 12, 13 and 22, but for me the standout one is 4 – ohhhhhh! Hope you’re both keeping fine; we are ok. Adrian πŸ™‚

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    • Thank you, Adrian, we are fine and I’m glad you are, too. Perilous times. #4 felt happy to me – right now I don’t remember whether it began in Color Effects or by playing around in LR. I did have a great time processing these. And of course, making the photos. The best part is always just being with them. Thank you for taking the time to let me know what stands out for you; it’s always interesting to know. Take care, enjoy the rest of the day. πŸ™‚

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  9. A super tribute to Nature in Spring.
    I particularly like 21 picturing the flower in context – the graceful dancers performing before a chaotic background exuding a rhythmic vitality.

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    • Louis, how terrific to see that you enjoyed the very different vision of #21. It was fun to work on that one. My eye was caught by the dried grasses behind and around that stand of lilies. Just as you say, the rhythms set up by the grasses and lilies interested me so I tried to emphasize that. Thank you, enjoy your garden and stay healthy. πŸ™‚

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  10. Beautiful flowers and beautiful photos. I like that you mentioned what other countries they grow in. In my mind’s eye I can see someone else in another country through all this craziness looking at the same flower and feeling what you did. A bit of unity in an otherwise crazy time.

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  11. Hello. Sometimes I think that I should reside in an area full of natural beauty, such as where you live. But I’m too much of a suburban/urban boy for that. But I do get my fix of natural beauty for two or three weeks each year on Cape Cod. My wife and I have been going there annually for over twenty years. Take care.

    Neil Scheinin

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    • I hear you about the draw of urban environments – I lived in NYC for many years. I still love the energy there, but now, only for a limited amount of time (and I’m sure glad I’m not there these days). Cape Cod – now that’s a great place to get a nature fix! And isn’t it great to return to a place over and over? Thanks so much for stopping by and commeing. I apprecaite it.

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  12. Again such a beautiful wildflower! I love your photos, all of them. You captured the flower from every angle, so lovely! My favorite pictures are #2 – the light, wonderful!, and #6 and #21. I also love the details of #18, the colors of #4 and #5. You wrote the Fawn lily needs moisture, so you probably have enough rain? We didn’t have rain for the last 4 to 5 weeks. It is sunny and warm and now windy. The next dry season is starting overhere. Luckily the spring flowers could bloom as usual.

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    • Your choices for favorites are very interesting – I can see how the graphic nature of #21 might appeal to your sense of design, and the single leaf might appeal to your love for finding beauty in ordinary things on the forest floor. And it makes me happy that you chose #2, too (tu-tu!) because it’s a big challenge to show the flowers in their environment. #18 was an odd flower – I just happened to walk past it when it was opening one petal. Strange, photogenic and amusing! I don’t find colors like those in #4 & 5 in my photos very often, so I was excited about them (I enhanced them in Color Effex). We had lots of rain in February and March but the first two weeks of this month were totally dry. I can’t believe you had dry weather in Spring for so long – that sounds bad. Yesterday we had a nice, drenching rain all day long, and we should get more in a few days. So everything is fine right now. Sunny, warm, and windy can be pleasant but it’s not what you want for Spring, right?

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      • The colors in 4 and 5 are really unusual for you, but I love this bluish-turquoise very much. You did a good job about it πŸ™‚ Like I said before, I love all your photos from this lily. Some of them remind me of headdresses from earlier times in the Netherlands. I can’t find a suitable link right now. – Your weather sounds good. Last year we had rain until May. The surface is dust already. Some more trees that are dead by now. No, that is not want I would like for spring. I hope there will be a change..

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        • I know the headdresses you’re talking about. πŸ™‚ I hope your weather improves. It seems to me that we live in a time of unbalance and extremes – too dry, too hot, too wet, a pandemic, melting ice, etc. But the details still keep enchanting us. Today I watched bees on flowers and thought of you – especially when I saw four bees on flowers I have at home in a pot (Lamiastrum). Wow! I actually attracted pollinators, yea! πŸ™‚

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        • Yea, congratulations! You are a bee-wisperer πŸ™‚ I totally agree with you! I think it is important to look at the things that are beautiful and that make us happy, because it doesn’t help us to mourn, no, moan, but sometimes it is really difficult not to do so. I try to find answers in nature. It is as it is and we must get used to a new climate, as far as we can’t influence it. Nature does the best in every environment…and so should we try to make the best of every situation.

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        • Well said. A bee-whisperer, well, not quite! That’s what you are. Thanks for inadvertently pointing out the interesting similarity between “mourn” and “moan” – a poet could make good use of that. Today my son posted on Facebook about a friend’s death 9 years ago, when they were both in Afghanistan. His friend was killed by an IED. It’s so sad. I went to the (military) funeral back then with other Marine parents and the boy’s family and friends, but his fellow Marines weren’t there because they were all still in Afghanistan. Every year at this time they remember that terrble week. Such a terrible loss, but all you can do is to try to do something positive – moaning doesn’t help.

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        • Oh, that is really sad and I think it is very difficult to look for something positive in this case. It will make life easier, if you can find something. I hope the memory of his fellow friends will help the family. At least he is not forgotten.

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  13. This is a wonderful post, Lynn. Filled with a natural history and beautiful imagery. As I looked through the pictures I thought I had found a favorite, then I scrolled, and scrolled, and scrolled, continuing to say ah this is the one. But there is no “one”. Each is different and outstanding on its own. I am happy for you that you finally got to enjoy, appreciate, and photograph this lovely lily. The WHO should write a song about this. πŸ™‚

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    • What a nice comment, Steve, thank you very much! I wouldn’t mind a long, intricately composed song by the WHO about these beauties. They have been good muses for a little while. We finally had a drenching rain yesterday after 2 weeks of dry weather so I’m not sure what they look like now. But there is always more to see, isn’t there?

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        • Ahh, I had a feeling I was missing something – I’m old enough, but I don’t remember that particular song. I had a listen – that old video’s Lo-fi sound and picture are kinda fun for a change. And the other half would be the one to talk to about Thunder Fingers, exactly what guitar he was using, etc. etc. πŸ™‚

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  14. Lovely. Such a graceful flower, almost ballerina-like; leggy, with refined curves.

    You seem to have extensive botanical knowledge. Are you formally trained, or just passionate enough to teach yourself?

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    • Your description is spot-on, Dave, I like it! Botany is just something that interests me because plants draw me like a magnet. I did take 2 years of botanical illustration years ago, which required some botanical instruction, but mostly I enjoy researching things that interest me. So when you read about something relatively obscure here, like the life cycle of the Fawn lily, chances are good that I just learned about it, too, and have my references close at hand while I write. πŸ˜‰ Thanks, and stay healthy!

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  15. Lynn, I’m reading your photo essay while eating my oatmeal with blueberries and strawberries, and somehow it adds up to a complete meal. Contractile roots is a new one for me. Brilliant! Roots that don’t feed you but pull you deeper.

    You give us all a gift with your thoughtful journeys into the woods.

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    • I’m so pleased I contributed to your nutritional requirements, Paul! πŸ˜‰ Contractile roots were new to me too – so cool! I love learning about things like that, but you made poetry of it. Brilliant.
      Yesterday I read about another plant I was photographing, which has no chlorophyll, no leaves, and no roots at all. It forms a relationship with a fungus in the soil….and it’s complex, naturally. So, more “thoughtful journeys” to come! It’s great to hear from you, and please stay well.

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  16. This album you’ve created seems like those books that are “the final word on the subject,” just a lovely tribute. But I know in a year’s time, you’ll have seen something new to focus on, like the pair in 18, a one-petaled pointer, and the exhibitionist. With all the wonderful shades of green, and the nice bit of color at the base of the petals, and the patterns on the leaves, in 6 and 9, are so nice, I almost wondered why you did the B&W shots. But after looking at all of these several times, without thinking about it, the B&W shots just appeal more and more, really nice!

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    • This “Just One” series is meant to have some useful information and to present – MAYBE – a well-rounded portrait of the plant, but at the same time, I want to express my own feelings about the plant. So it’s a tall order. Your comment makes me think I succeeded this time. πŸ™‚
      A one-petaled pointer, yes! That one was strange; I had to get down on the ground and photograph it.
      I think the flower lends itself to lots of treatments, especially black and white, so thanks for being open-minded. But that’s a quality I think comes naturally to you. Thanks, Robert!

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  17. What a beautiful opening paragraph, Lynn. Your study of these delicate flowers is captivating. Your opening shot, the monochromes, the dewdrop leaf…so many excellent images. I smiled to myself at #10 because it reminded me of the Flying Nun- now I am dating myself! πŸ™‚ A wonderful and serene post.

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    • Many of us remember the Flying Nun – yeesh! πŸ™‚ Almuth (pflanzwas) above said it reminded her of old Dutch headwear…more or less the same idea, I think. I’m glad you enjoyed the images – I certainly enjoyed making them. The flower’s simple shape and lack of color make it very photogenic. It’s a good thing I was in the habit of going to that park repeatedly and could photograph them over the course of a few weeks – I think the rain we finally had yesterday battered them. I’m happy you appreciate the opening paragraph, too – I don’t ever want to sound preachy so I worry sometimes about the more philosophical statements. Thank you!

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  18. Take a bow, Lynn. Your tribute to the Fawn lily is outstandingly beautiful, in words and images. It’s so hard to pick only a few favourites here. Thank you for sharing your talent, thoughts and vision with us. πŸŒ±πŸƒ

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  19. Just wonderful simplicity in your photographs Lynn . Spring is bounding along without a care in the world without any help or intervention from any us . Isn’t it so good to know that in the wider world everything in Nature is happening even though many of our thoughts are concentrated in a very much smaller sphere just now . I can’t wait to spread my wings again πŸ™‚
    #4 the colours … swoon … love how you’ve *seen this to make it your own … #10 and #13 #16 particularly jumped out me . Love the thought behind it’s name … those leaves certainly make a great contrast with the simple flower forms .

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    • Thank you! I had fun with these. I bet you are looking forward to getting out and about again. It just seems that there’s never going to be “going back to normal” but rather, things are going to very, very gradually inch back in that direction. Frustrating! Those colors in #4 were a surprise to me – they almost make me think of the tropics, ahhh… Thank you again, Poppy, it’s good to know which images grab you more. Stay healthy! πŸ™‚

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