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What Is a Desert Lily?

By Angie Bates
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The desert lily is a type of wildflower which is native to specific regions of North America. Usually found at altitudes below 2500 feet (760 m) in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, this white flower is similar in appearance to an Easter lily. Although it was original classified in the Lily family, Liliaceae, genetic testing has revealed this lily to be part of the agave family, Asparagaceae. The scientific name of the desert lily is Hesperocallis undulata.

Arid climates are necessary for the desert lily to grow. Soil must be deep and either sandy or loamy. Flowers grow on flat land or slopes in only two deserts in North America, which are located in parts of Mexico, as well as California and Arizona. Attempts to grow this flower in gardens are not usually met with success because of the specific desert requirements and the difficulty of finding bulbs for purchase.

The dark brown onion-shaped bulbs of the desert lily are usually found over 2 feet (61 cm) under the surface. Although the flower is perennial, the bulb may lie dormant for several years if the environmental conditions are not right for growth. The desert lily's bulbs were once eaten by Native Americans and Spanish settlers, and thus earned the name ajo, meaning garlic, lily from the Spanish populations after their garlicky taste.

Stems grow between 12 and 20 inches (30.5–51 cm) high. A rosette of pointed, bluish-green leaves circle the stem at ground level. The base leaves may measure 8–20 inches (20–51 cm) in length. Shorter pointed leaves are found along the stem as well.

Blooming in March through May, the flowers of a desert lily are funnel shaped and attached to the main stem by small individual stems called pedicles. Six oblong petals surround a cluster of yellow-tipped stamen. Blossoms are usually 2.5 inches (6.4 cm) wide, and multiple single blossoms may occur along the stem. The underside of each petal is marked with a single silvery green stripe. The fragrant flowers attract hummingbirds and moths who serve to pollinate them.

Although the desert lily is normally found only in the wild, it can be easily seen by people wishing to observe its beauty. California hosts a Desert Lily Sanctuary which has given official protection to this flower since 1994 and unofficial protection since 1968. Nature lovers come to the Sanctuary most often in late winter through early spring to appreciate the flowers blooming and the wildlife the blossoms attract.

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