Growing Calochortus from Seed

While many Calochortus species are available in bulb form from commercial cultivators, there is a special reward to those who propagate Calochortus from seed. Though most species take three growing seasons to develop from seed to flowering adult, the patient cultivator can enjoy the satisfaction of nurturing and observing the gradual transformation they have unleashed by joining seed with soil. There is a peculiar joy to be had in seeing the return of an old friend, when the cool rains of autumn wake up a sleeping bulb.

Many California species germinate well in a 50-50 mix of peat moss and sand (what has been called "UC Davis Mix"), when started in the late fall. This is the begining of the time-window when seeds germinate naturally in the California wet season (October-November to April-May).

The seeds should be scattered on the surface of a container at least 6 inches deep, then covered with a 1/8 to 1/4 inch layer of mix and a light scattering of small pea gravel. The gravel tends to keep the seeds from washing away or clumping up.

Keep the mix evenly moist with a hand sprayer until germination starts, and then for several weeks thereafter. I generally use a squeeze bottle for light watering once the seedlings are well established.

Signs of Mariposa Lily germination are small green "loops" breaking the surface. In time the seedling will either leave its seed coat in the ground, or bring it up to the surface, where it might fall off of its own accord, looking like a tiny blade of grass. Before long a secondary leaf will appear and the initial leaf will wither. Globe Lily germination is a bit different, in that they don't produce a secondary leaf, but a primary leaf which might grow as long as 5 inches.

C.nuttallii.seedlings 650x441

Some C. nuttallii germinating with the characteristic 'loops' of the Mariposa Lily seedling. Note the oval seed-coats seen on some sprouts.


 Some C. leichtlinii seedlings sporting secondary leaves with purple bases.

In the first growing season, a Mariposa secondary leaf might also get as long as 5 inches, and look like a strand of grass. During this time, the plant will be busily producing a tiny, rice-sized bulblet, which will be critical to its reappearance in the coming fall. About 2 or 3 months after germination, the seedling will begin to yellow--at this point, stop watering and allow the container to dry out thoroughly-- ie., VERY DRY. Put it in a place where it won't see water until the wet season begins again. If the dormant bulblets get wet in the warm summer months, they will most likely rot.

It is best not to disturb a planting until after it has reached flowering adulthood. By this time the bulbs should be large enough to handle and repot just before the ensuing wet season--or the period in which watering will begin. It should be noted that California Calochortus are happiest when given a long, dry resting period--5 or 6 months. Learning about the natural growing conditions of the species in question will undoubtedly help a grower know how to treat their plants. One can't go wrong in imitating these conditions as closely as practicable.