Carolina on My Mind


In the process of exploring East Texas, I’ve become intrigued by the number of plants in the region that bear ‘Carolina’ in their name. Carolina larkspur; Carolina buckthorn; Carolina elephant’s foot; Carolina crane’s-bill: I’ve seen and photographed them all.

One of the most delightful Carolina namesakes is the Carolina lily (Lilium michauxii), the official state wildflower of North Carolina.  Found in the oak-pine woodlands and forests of deep east Texas, it’s an uncommon Texas native, and uncommonly beautiful.

The plant bears one to six blooms at the top of each stem. Its six tepals (three petals and three sepals) are strongly reflexed, or bent backward; six slender filaments with brown anthers protrude from the center of the flower, as does a long style with a three-lobed stigma. 

While similar to the Turk’s Cap lily (Lilium superbum), there’s quite a difference in size. Carolina lily usually is two to three feet tall, while the Turk’s Cap lily is much taller, and bears more than twice as many flowers.


Named by fellow botanist and explorer Jean Louis Marie Poiret (1755-1834) for French botanist Andre Michaux, who traveled widely in the southeastern United States, the lily did some traveling of its own, expanding its range all the way to Texas. Finding it at the Watson Rare Plant Preserve was an unexpected treat.


Comments always are welcome.

66 thoughts on “Carolina on My Mind

  1. Never fail to be surprised and delighted by the variety and abundance of beauty by nature.
    Now intrigued by all the Carolina names. Have to wonder how many people wandered down from the original spot perhaps bringing a few bits of home to plant around the new homestead.

    1. We have an excellent local example of people bringing their plants with them; the oaks in League City were brought from other places and distributed to the citizenry, both as plants and as seeds. In the same way, many of the live oaks in Galveston (pre-1900) were brought to the island by German settlers who’d come to appreciate them in their hill country homes.

      Michaux discovered this lily in South Carolina, probably near the headwaters of the Savannah River, and referred to it as Lilium carolinianum. From what I’ve read on some gardening sites, it’s difficult to grow from seed and generally hard to propagate except by division, so it may be that as people traveled, they recognized the plant in their new territories, and attached the familiar name.

  2. Although we have similar, your Carolina lily does not appear in New England. A shame because it is a lovely bloom as you have well-demonstrated. We also have a few Carolinas but none that I have seen or at least am aware that I have. OTOH, I am sure we share this. Save for a preposition I thought you’d have shared it too.

    1. I did think about that song, and pondered which preposition to use in the title. In the end, I decided I wanted to keep the focus on the flower, and let other associations emerge as they would. I knew someone would pick it up, and you did.

      This was the only lily blooming in the Watson Preserve that day — at least, it was the only one I saw. If others were around they probably would have been easy to spot. I didn’t carry a camera during the plant walk, but went back later to take photos. Fewer people and more time make for better photos, at least in my case.

      1. Hard to not think of it with your title. Stayed in my head for a while.

        It’s always a treat to find the only one in a spot. I agree, they’d be pretty hard to miss. I’ve thought about doing the same, taking a walk with a botanist and then going back solo.

        Good images and nice to see both sides now. LOL

  3. Good morning, Linda,
    The title of this post reminds me: I have Carolina on my mind in quite a different way. Ever since our last road trip I’ve been looking for a song connected especially to Carolina. If I had one, I would have one song for each of the states visited, e.g. “Sweet Home Alabama”, “Tennessee Waltz”, “Down by the Banks of the Ohio”. etc.
    Have a wonderful weekend,

    1. I’m so glad I thought to take a photo of the flower from behind, though I missed the connection to ballet. To be honest, the tepals remind me of Dim Sum: specifically my favorite Char Siu Bao, or steamed pork buns. They’re slightly sweet, too!

        1. I’ll stick with delicious to look at. The thought of digging up an uncommon plant to eat the bulbs makes me quiver — maybe if I lived in an area where the plant common, I’d be more open to it, although with so many carrots and such to enjoy, I’m happy enough to stick with the ordinary. I’m just not much of a forager, I guess.

  4. I must’ve seen something like this somewhere because it looks pretty familiar. They don’t grow up here, but perhaps there’s a species which resembles it (or maybe I’m remembering it from travels down south!). At any rate, it’s a beauty and your photos are, too.

    1. They look very much like tiger lilies. Odd, but I never hear about that flower without thinking of the Woody Allen film, What’s Up, Tiger Lily? I know people love day lilies, but I think this one, and the tiger lily, equal them in every respect.

  5. I think so many of the ‘Carolina’ and ‘Virginia’ plants were just that they were originally found and described in those areas and subsequently later found to have a larger distribution.

    We meant to hit up Watson in July but didn’t get there. Now August is full so maybe September!

    1. And I think you’re exactly right — although that larger distribution came first, and was all the plant’s doing. We humans just came along later and said, “My goodness — lookie what’s here!”

      I’m going to try and post more extensive pieces about the Watson Preserve and other great places in that area over the next month.There are some intriguing Big Thicket trails that will be a little more enjoyable when it’s not over 100F.

  6. Stunning photos–I especially like that second one: Carolina shy flower. Don’t forget Carolina jessamine, Carolina wren, Carolina anole, Carolina chickadee–I know I’m forgetting some. What is it with ‘Carolina’?

    1. How could I have forgotten Carolina jessamine? And even I know the Carolina chickadee.

      I suspect that we have so many ‘Carolinas’ because naturalists and botanists moved across the country in the same way that settlers and pioneers did: from east to west. Granted, some came into the country through Mexico, or into Gulf ports, but many coming from Europe began their explorations and travels on the east coast. That’s where plants like this lily first were discovered; only later did people begin to realize that the plant could be found in places well away from the site of its original discovery. That’s my theory, anyway. It would be interesting to explore a different region — say, New England — and see if there are place names there that have been commonly attached to plants.

  7. I never knew there were so many plants with Carolina in the name, but then again – I don’t know very many names of plants. haha This one is quite unusual and beautiful!!

    1. It’s only been in the past few months that I’ve come to recognize how many plants have ‘Carolina’ in their names, GP. I’ve discovered them one by one, and it took me some time to make the connection. I agree with you that this one is beautiful. The fact that it’s uncommon made finding it even more special — and only one! A few days this way or that, and I might never have seen it.

  8. Seems we all have our lilies. Most of ours grow up in the mountains and often make it into my posts. They are photogenic. No doubt about it. We had one that grew in the graveyard next to our house when I was growing up that must have had at least 20 flowers on it. –Curt

    1. A friend in Montana often posts photos of glacier lilies and Mariposa lilies that grow up in the mountains. I see that you have a rare lily that’s somewhat similar in appearance to this one: the western lily (Lilium occidentale). I noticed in the article that over-collection has been one serious problem; both breeders and collectors helped to reduce the populations.

      I enjoy finding the remnant plants that mark graves and homesteads. There are lilies and amaryllis that will pop up here from time to time, and when you look more closely, it’s easy to see what they once graced a front porch or garden plot. Sometimes, it’s even possible to find the old steps, or a well. The human presence disappears, but the flowers go on.

      1. In Spring the most obvious here are the masses of Lilacs and Ditch Lilies gone feral to mark the bones of previous Residents (and Residences; ) but, as you mentioned there are many more plants to see on closer inspection. A lovely way to spend exploring: )

        1. You’re right about the lilacs and ditch lilies, for sure. Now that I think of it, I do remember how the lilacs, especially, were signs of declining midwestern homesteads. Reading the landscape can be as interesting as reading a book; there are story lines galore.

      2. “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed.”
        I don’t know if you are familiar with the folksinger Kate Wolf, but she has a beautiful song about plants growing where once a home stood in Appalachia, and if I recall right, the memories of the plants. –Curt

  9. At first it reminded me of the beloved tiger Lily, then next I thought she’s so charming and well mannered, because of her ladylike habit of covering her backside when she bends to kiss the Earth.

    1. Now, that gave me a new way to look at that photo — and a smile, too. Being lady-like isn’t always a bad thing, despite certain modern convictions to the contrary.

    1. Well, since I hadn’t heard the term “Carolinian Forest” until about five minutes ago, I’m sure not qualified even to guess. That said, let me give a qualified “maybe.” I did find that the Carolinian forest begins in the Carolinas and stretches northward into Canada (although the boundaries and definitions have changed several times), so it makes sense that some plants discovered in the southeastern part of the U.S. might have moved northward as well as westward. Some of those might well have ‘carolina’ in their names.

        1. Point Pelee sounds so familiar. I’m sure someone I follow has been there while traveling. That entire area is one I’d love to visit, along with Maine and Massachusetts, particularly. The history’s of interest, as well as the natural features.

          1. Well, they’re certainly closer to each other in comparison to where you are now; but there’s 12.5 hours’ drive from Massachusetts to Point Pelee, ON staying State-side and then 14 hours’ going across the top of the Great Lakes to Maine… (So just a bit of a jaunt; ) but certainly tonnes of Historical, Geological & Natural interest enroute – enough to keep you busy for years, if you had the time!

            1. Interesting. It takes me fourteen and a half hours to drive to my aunt’s place in Kansas City, and at sixty miles an hour it takes about the same time to drive across the state of Texas, so fourteen hours doesn’t sound daunting at all. Of course, the way I piddle along, it could take me fourteen days.

    1. Coincidence strikes again. I did think it interesting that a plant discovered in South Carolina became the state wildflower for North Carolina. I wondered which plant had become the state wildflower for South Carolina, and found this:

      “Tall Goldenrod (Solidago altissima) became South Carolina’s state wildflower in 2003, championed by garden clubs after it was determined their first choice, Queen Anne’s Lace, is not native to our state.”


      I was pleased with the photos, and I’m pleased you like them.

      1. We saw goldenrod of undetermined (by me) species flowering across the Northeast for much of our trip. Now that we’ve gotten back into the deep South we haven’t seen any more goldenrod. By far the most common wildflower along highways in the Northeast was Queen Anne’s lace, alas.

  10. I like the way the petals are bent backwards. They must be strong-willed. Perhaps they want as much attention as possible. I don’t think the Carolina lily is coy at all. Lovely photo, Linda.

    1. I found two more of these lilies today, but both were a little worn, and neither was so attractive when seen from behind. I think those backwards-bent petals are immensely attractive. They no doubt serve some purpose for the flower, as well, but for us, seeing the beauty can be enough.

  11. What a beauty – I’m always happy to find lilies….ours is less intensely colored and about the same size….L. columbianum, or Tiger lily. I suppose there are at least several dfferent species called Tiger lily. I like the one-two punch of your two views here.

    1. I think there must be several lilies known as ‘tiger’ — some native, and some cultivars. As a result of finding this gem, I did learn that daylilies and tiger lilies are different genera. One difference is the down-turned petals of tiger lilies; day lilies have a more upright, trumpet-shaped bloom. Like you, I enjoyed both views of this flower, and found both equally appealing.

  12. Beautiful. I’ve yet to explore all the wild lilies there are. It’s great to know the actual natives, as this family has been so commercialized and hybridized as to obscure the forerunners.

    1. It was quite a surprise to me to learn that the yellow and orange lilies filling our ditches aren’t native. When I first met them, years ago, I assumed they had to be native because they were so prolific, and spread so wildly. Then I learned about invasive plants, and began to see them a little differently.

      I confess I was surprised to find this Texas native: surprised not only to find it, but to learn it even exists. This past weekend, I was in the same general area, and found two more. They were a bit past their prime, and not so neatly put together, so I was even happier that I’d found this lovely specimen.

  13. It was a good year for lilies here, too. So many plants were found in the Carolinas by those early botanists, and so they carry caroliniensis in their name. I have to laugh at my perceptions because most of the plants I know I learned at Illinois Beach State Park, where the soil is very lean and the winds are often high, so the plants there are very short. Turk’s Cap there is about 2′ tall. Imagine my surprise then when I grew some in my garden and they soared up to 6′!

    1. Now that I’ve thought more about it, I’ve realized that the same dynamic was in play in various parts of the country: we have innumerable plants that include texensis or texana in their scientific names, and lots of Texas-this-and-that for common names. I can think of several that reference Montana, and a few that refer to Arkansas. The names are good not only for identification, but also for historical hints about their discovery.

      I’ve usually seen the effects of constant wind on trees. The live oaks on the Texas coast often are stunted and bent because of the prevailing winds, and there are a lot of stunted oaks in Arkansas’s Ouachita mountains. It never had occurred to me that other plants could be affected as well, but of course they could — as you learned!

      1. I’ve never been to Arkansas. I’ve been thinking it would be fun to explore it. I’m a fan of Allan Smith, and he often shows clips of the state in his show. It looks beautiful. Yes, the Monterey Pines come to mind, all twisted by the winds coming off the ocean.

        1. The northwest quadrant’s where I’d like to visit again. It not only has the mountains, it has rivers and waterfalls galore. There’s a great book by Tim Ernst that I hope to put to use some day. It has the state divided into sections, and has mapped entries for sites in each section: prairies, scenic drives, swamps and bayous, waterfalls, and so on. It also allows for searching by geographical region, and includes maps of trails, the location of trailheads, and so on. I’ll skip the caves, though!

          1. Yeah, me too. Not a fan of caves. This sounds like a great book. I recently enjoyed a similar book about North Carolina.

  14. I’m always fascinated by the way specific flowers arrange and fold their petals. This is beautiful, in some ways it looks more like an exotic orchid than a lily.

    1. I’ve always liked the way milkweed petals bend backwards, too, but I don’t remember seeing another flower that does it in such an obvious way until I came upon this lily. There may be others, of course, but this certainly is a lovely example. There is such variety; it’s part of what makes exploration in nture great fun.

      1. One of my favourite plants that has a fascinating arrangement of petals is Cyclamen and I particularly like watching the way they open from their bud-form – they’re layered diagonally like a corkscrew and gradually unfurl. If you’ve not seen any (though I expect you have) do have look for some photos of them.

        1. I do know cyclamens, although I confess I’ve not paid much if any attention to the petals. I’ll remedy that this year. It certainly will be easy to do. They’re used as a bedding plant in landscapes during the winter months, and their color always is a lovely sight on a gray day!

          1. We have some little ones in the rockery in our side garden – I’m not really sure how they took hold, I suspect we put one out that looked dead and it just came to life again and multiplied! I like them as houseplants as they’re so much easier to watch close up.

  15. It seems like certain states are overrepresented in the names of eastern North American species. I assume that reflects where they were first noticed by Europeans. For instance, Virginia has way more than its share of plant names. I venture the same could be said of Canada, though not to the same extent. Plus, poor Pennsylvania got mostly overlooked because plants discovered there are often called occidentalis (western), as in Western Sunflower (Helianthus occidentalis).

    1. Until I read your comment, I never had thought about the name of Occidental Petroleum. When I looked up its history, I discovered it was founded in California: about as far west as you can get in the U.S. And of course there are plenty of plants that carry some variety of the Texas name, such as one variety of our state flower: Lupinus texensis. When I started pondering states that aren’t involved in plant names, it got interesting. Montana has plenty, but I can’t think of any that involve Utah or Nevada. Exploring geographical references in the names would be a fun project for a rainy day.

    1. My sense is that it’s smaller, too, and more compact. It is beautiful, and it certainly was a surprise: the sort of surprise that can come when prairies are exchanged for woodlands. Reading about ecoregions is one thing; actually experiencing the difference after a three hour drive is something else.

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