En EspaŅol

Q. Who is Mr. Smarty Plants?

A: There are those who suspect Wildflower Center volunteers are the culpable and capable culprits. Yet, others think staff members play some, albeit small, role. You can torture us with your plant questions, but we will never reveal the Green Guru's secret identity.

Help us grow by giving to the Plant Database Fund or by becoming a member

Did you know you can access the Native Plant Information Network with your web-enabled smartphone?

Share

Ask Mr. Smarty Plants

Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Search Smarty Plants
    
 
See a list of all Smarty Plants questions
Can't find the answer in our existing FAQs, submit a question to Mr. Smarty Plants.
Need help with plant identification, visit the plant identification page.
 
rate this answer
17 ratings

Friday - August 19, 2011

From: New York, NY
Region: Northeast
Topic: General Botany, Plant Identification
Title: Native North American bulbs
Answered by: Nan Hampton

QUESTION:

I saw your list of 4 lilies native to the Northeastern United States, which was very helpful. What other bulbs are native to North America? Although I garden in Connecticut, I am interested in learning about any native bulbs. Thank you.

ANSWER:

First, I think we need to distinguish bulbs from other underground storage structures—corms, rhizomes and tubers.   According to our "Glossary of Botanical Terms", a bulb is:  "A thick, rounded, underground organ consisting of layered, fleshy leaves and membranes."  The fleshy leaves, easily seen in the layers of the onion bulb, store food for the growth of the plant.  A corm, from our Glossary, is: "A short, fleshy underground stem, broader than high, producing stems from the base and leaves and flower stems from the top."  The corm has papery leaves that cover it, but doesn't have the thick layers of fleshy leaves like the bulb.  Rhizomes are thickened horizontal underground stems that allow the plant to spread.  Many lilies have both bulbs and rhizomes.  Tubers are expanded tips of rhizomes, e.g., potatoes.  To add confusion, "bulb" is often used to describe all of the above as well as any other expanded underground part of a plant. 

Flowering plants are divided into two major groups or classes, the monocots and the dicots.  The major recognizable families in the monocots include the lilies, irises, orchids, palms and grasses.  The dicots comprise everything else, e.g., the sunflowers, asters, sages, milkweeds, oaks, elms, etc.  There are many features that botanists use to distinguish between the two groups.  Here are few that are easily seen:  Monocots have flower parts in multiples of three, parallel leaf veins and the feature that gives them their name—an embryo with a single cotyledon.  Dicots have flowers with parts in multiples of four or five, branching or reticulated leaf veins and embryos with two cotyledons.  You can read more about the differences and similarities between the two flowering plant classes from the University of California Museum of Paleontology.

Almost exclusively, species that have bulbs are in the monocots.  Many of the species in the Family Liliaceae (Lily Family) as well as the Family Iridaceae (Iris Family) have bulbs. 

Here are some species in the Lily Family that have bulbs:

Here are some species in the Iris Family:

The Iris spp. themselves, according to the Flora of North America, grow from rhizomes, not from true bulbs.

 You can read more about the Family Liliaceae and Family Iridaceae in the Flora of North America.

There is actually one family of plants in the dicots with some species with true bulbs—the Family Oxalidaceae (Woodsorrel Family).

A paper by K. C. Oberlander et al., "A model of bulb evolution in the eudicot genus Oxalis (Oxalidaceae)" (Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution Vol. 51 (2009) pp. 54-63) discusses this one dicot family that has bulbs.  A great many species of South African Oxalis have bulbs.  There is one North American native species of Oxalis, Oxalis latifolia (Broadleaf woodsorrel), that has bulbs. 

You might also be interested in reading Bulbs of North America by Jane McGary (2001, Timber Press) and visiting the webpage of Pacific Bulb Society.


 

From the Image Gallery


Meadow garlic
Allium canadense

Sagebrush mariposa lily
Calochortus macrocarpus

Small camas
Camassia quamash

Yellow trout-lily
Erythronium americanum

Yellow fritillary
Fritillaria pudica

Carolina spiderlily
Hymenocallis caroliniana

Crow poison
Nothoscordum bivalve

Green corn lily
Veratrum viride

Nuttall's deathcamas
Zigadenus nuttallii

Propeller flower
Alophia drummondii

Prairie celestials
Nemastylis geminiflora

Prairie nymph
Herbertia lahue

More Plant Identification Questions

How to distinguish Malvaviscus arboreus from M. a. var. drummondii?
May 28, 2010 - I have a Turk's Cap plant. How do I tell if it is Malvaviscus arboreus or Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii?
view the full question and answer

Non-native astilbe resemblance to non-native poisonous castor bean from Tomslake BC
May 21, 2014 - I have a plant that looks like a castor bean but it has flowers like a Younique Silvery Pink Astilbe. Need to id because castor bean is poisonous. This plant grows up to 5 feet in height. Thank you !
view the full question and answer

Plant identification
November 02, 2011 - I have a plant that I would like to identify. It is a tall shrub/woody vine? (approx. 8-10 feet) that has very large thorns on its branches and stems. The stems remain green during winter. It loses it...
view the full question and answer

Identification of plant that looks like a spider plant
February 25, 2008 - Okay Mr. Smarty Pants, I have an identification for you. I have no pictures, but I've been staring at this plant for weeks trying to figure out what it is. I got it as a cutting from a friend who got...
view the full question and answer

Identification of plant, probably Eryngium leavenworthii (Leavenworths eryngo)
October 26, 2007 - burr like bloom shaped like small pineapple,purple in color,grows in a cluster on single stem,dries well
view the full question and answer

Smarty Plants's Facebook profile Support the Wildflower Center by Donating Online or Becoming a Member today.

Mr. Smarty Plants wants you to be his Facebook friend. Click the Facebook icon to add yourself to Mr. Smarty Plants list of friends.
E-NEWSLETTER | BECOME A MEMBER | DONATE NOW | MEDIA | SITEMAP
© 2014 Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center