What Is a Star Lily?

O. Parker
O. Parker
Woman with a flower
Woman with a flower

The star lily is a flowering bulbous plant native to the west coast of the United States. Its white, star-shaped flowers bloom in clusters in spring and summer. Star lilies belong to the Liliaceae or lily family. Deer and other wildlife tend to avoid the star lily due to its poisonous alkaloid contents.

A recent change in the scientific classification has resulted in two different listings for this same plant, in many botanical databases and books. The new term is Toxicoscordion fremontii, changed from its former name of Zigadenus fremontii. Alternate common names of the star lily are Fremont's deathcamas, or simply death camas.

These plants grow to between 20 to 30 inches (about 50 to 70 cm) tall on fleshy, green stalks. The white, star-shaped flowers bloom from early spring into summer. Each plant produces a cluster of flowers with three petals and three sepals, giving it the appearance of having six petals. The sepals cover the flower during development and open to reveal the petals when the flower blooms.

The Liliaceae plant family contains between 4,000 and 6,000 different species in 250 different genera. This family includes common lilies, wild lilies, and other, less obvious members, like the agave and aloe plants. Like many members in the Liliaceae family, the star lily is a perennial that grows from a bulbous root system.

In the garden, the star lily is a low-maintenance ornamental, ideal in areas where deer and wildlife tend to damage tender, non-poisonous perennials. A spot that gets a little shade is ideal, but the star lily can also tolerate full sun. It grows best in loamy soil with good drainage, but will thrive in light clay soil as well.

Fall is the best time to plant star lily bulbs but an early spring planting is also suitable. Each bulb should be planted 4 to 6 inches (about 10 to 15 cm) deep, in groups of three or more. The pointed end of the bulb will produce the leaves and flower stalks. Therefore, it is critical that this end point up when placed in the planting hole.

Once planted, star lily bulbs should be mulched to insulate them through the winter months. A 4 to 6 inch (10 to 15 cm) layer of mulch spread over the top of the planting area will regulate soil temperature and minimize frost heave. This heave occurs when the ground freezes and thaws during winter, which can cause it to push the bulbs out of the soil and expose them to frost.

In summer, after the flowers die back, the stalks and leaves should be left until they turn brown naturally. At this point, the dead plant material can be cut back to the soil line. This perennial returns year after year with little additional care.

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      Woman with a flower