I had begun to gain a bit of a reputation among the locals. At the time I was working as a utility meter reader, a job that required me to drive rural routes once per month. You get to know the folks on your route as the years pass. And they, apparently, get to know you.

“Hey aren’t you that guy I see crawling around in the ditch all the time?”

My awakening to native prairie remnants was at this time fairly fresh. I had identified a number of them on my route and would stop and explore them each month on my way through. Every visit was a revelation, and that day in late June was no exception.

I was just pulling up along side what would eventually be recognized as “my favorite ditch,” when something immediately drew my attention. There, no more than twenty feet from the highway, was an almost supernatural orange blazing from the lush green grass!

As I got closer, I could see that it was a small lily, no more than a foot tall. Even with all I’d seen to that point, I still hadn’t fully shaken the mindset that native plants were relatively drab compared to cultivars.

“This can’t be real.”

But it was! I looked it up on the Minnesota Wildflowers website (a resource you all should take advantage of and support, btw.) and sure enough, I was in the presence of a true native beauty: the wood lily!

I remember thinking how unbelievable it was that I had lived nearly four decades on this planet without knowing that the plants that once covered this land were so stunning in their beauty! I felt like I had been cheated. I also remember thinking how crazy everyone was who simply wizzed by this site on the highway (looking at me as though I was in search of my marbles)!

I didn’t know anything about this plant. All I knew is that I needed to grow some to plant on our prairie reconstruction. When I came back the following month, however, it was gone. I looked and looked, but it soon became clear that I didn’t even know what I was looking for!

After a bit more research, I found a photo of a wood lily seed head. In the process, I also learned that deer are absolutely addicted to them! Try as I might, I couldn’t locate a seed pod. I found at least one stem that had been nipped off, but that was it.

As seems often to be the case, it was only once all hope seemed lost that I nearly stepped on a lone seed pod as I was walking back to the car!

Wood lily seed pod

My first year attempting to propagate the lilies was a wash out. They germinated readily, but seemed not to grow much beyond producing a single small leaf. I tried to plant them in the fall, but none of them survived.

The next year I began my efforts with additional knowledge. I had since learned that one can’t expect much more than a single leaf from a first year wood lily. They grow veeeeeery slowly! The only way to deal with this is to give them the light and nutrients they need and let them go at their own pace. These are a species that cannot be rushed.

By the end of a full growing season it was time to let them rest. I gently removed them from the communal flat that they had been growing in and carefully prepared them to sleep in the refrigerator. There were about one hundred and fifty-two robust little bulbs!

I am still learning about wood lilies. Since this was my first successful year of growing them from seed, I decided to pull a few out from their slumber after they had been dormant for a couple months. I’m most happy to report that after about a week under lights, they’ve begun sending up new growth! We’ve got quite a ways yet to go before we see blossoms, but I’m confident we’re on the right track!

I’m excited that I’ve learned to propagate these and so many other amazing native plants from seed, but I still struggle to get over how many of us (until fairly recently, myself included!) can easily live our whole life in this place and have next to no knowledge of the biological and aesthetic richness that our natural heritage contains. I’m working to change that, because in connecting with this form of life my own life has been deepened and, in some very real ways, healed.

There is a voice calling to us through these fragments that remain of a shattered landscape. It is at once foreign and familiar, emanating from beyond and deep within, like a home in which we have forgotten we once lived. It may be so that we can never go back, but it is my sense that we have much to gain by remembering, honoring, and feeling the soft earth beneath our feet once again.

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  1. How is this different from the Michigan Lily? And does it grow in different places than the Michigan Lily?

    1. Hi Sue, the most noticeable difference between wood lily and Michigan lily is that while the Michigan lily blossom faces down, the wood lily blossom opens towards the sky. The wood lily is also much shorter, has more red in its blossom, and grows in dryer habitats.

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