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If you take your time and allow your senses to awaken, a springtime stroll through the woods can be every bit as enlightening as a visit to your local library (and a hundred times more productive than spending an afternoon surfing the Internet): fiddleheads unfurl from the duff beneath your feet, tree frogs creak from hidden runnels, flickers plumb nearby stumps for grubs, geese chuckle overhead…

…and—at least in the undisturbed meadows of the American West—a profusion of delicate, yellow flowers nod tentatively in the gentle breezes that meander along the forest floor.

Early each spring, glacier lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum) chase the vanishing snow from moist, open or semi-open areas at middle to alpine elevations from southwestern Canada to New Mexico. These are perennial plants with deep, bulb-like corms, a pair of narrow, bright green leaves, and a solitary blossom atop a leafless stem. Their six lemon-yellow petals are strongly recurved, and—depending on the subspecies—the stamens are white, yellow, brown, or purplish.

Glacier lilies (some people prefer a less boreal-sounding name, such as dogtooth violet or fawn lily) provide forage for deer, elk, bears, and rodents. Several Native American tribes consumed glacier lily corms, which are edible raw but are sweeter (and easier on the digestive tract) when they're cooked. The corms were also dried and used in trade. The stems and leaves of glacier lilies are also edible, but the corms are more flavorful and nutritious.

Montana tribes mashed or chewed the roots of glacier lilies and applied them to boils and skin sores, and the Okanagan-Colville Indians used the corms to treat colds and other upper respiratory infections. Eclectic physicians of the 19th century prescribed a related species, E. americanum, for tuberculosis-related lymph node swelling and to relieve peripheral edema, hiccups, hemoptysis (couging blood), and vomiting. (Interestingly, too many fresh corms can actually trigger vomiting.)

While the diminutive and evanescent glacier lily may not hold a prominent place in your herbal armamentarium, it’s another of those useful and oh, so attractive botanicals that should be tucked into that corner of your brain reserved for “rarities.”

Sources

  1. Personal Notes, Stephen Christensen
  2. Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs. Glacier Lily, Yellow Fawn Lily. Steven Foster and Christopher Hobbs. Houghton Mifflin, 2002