You have probably seen them along the roadsides, in parks and in many lawns. The white blossoms are set on the tops of slender, straight, green stalks. All the stalks are about the same height, around 12 inches, and there can be a dozen or more on a square foot of lawn. Densely packed together like this, they resemble the candles on a birthday cake!
Rain-lilies open in the evening and are at their best the following morning. Within two to four days, the flowers wither and turn pink. The show is over. At least until the next good rain wets the soil again.
The rain-lilies blooming now are the smaller kind. Its flowers are only about an inch across and only slightly fragrant. This species is known as the evening star rain-lily (Cooperia drummondii) and most often blooms in late summer and fall.
Earlier in the summer and in spring, a rain-lily comes out with a larger flower blooms. This is the prairie rain-lily (Cooperia pedunculata) and its flowers can be up to 2.5 inches across. It is also very fragrant and showy. I love it when these rain-lilies bloom; the air is perfumed with their scent for days.
Prairie rain-lilies really stand out when they are in bloom. Like the evening star rain-lily, there can be thousands of them blooming at one time. Not too long ago when the prairie rain-lilies were in a spectacular flush of flowers, my friend Kay Past was driving along Viggo Road. Both sides of the road were covered with these bright white rain-lilies. She said “It looked as if the road had been decorated for a wedding!”
South Texas used to have far less brush and more open prairie. This was when the buffalo roamed and fire wasn’t suppressed. I can imagine Native Americans coming across stretches of prairie covered in rain-lilies. It must have been awe-inspiring.
Early naturalists exploring Texas must have been in plant heaven. One such person, Thomas Drummond, spent two years collecting birds and plants along the Brazos, Colorado and Guadalupe Rivers. This was in the early 1830s. He collected and described so many new species that several have been named for him. You’ve probably heard of Drummond’s phlox, a lovely spring wildflower. And of course the evening star rain-lily mentioned above has C. drummondii as its scientific name.
Many of these early naturalists suffered hardship and disease, but their strong wills kept them going. Thomas Drummond was scheduled to join botanist David Douglas (of the Royal Horticultural Society) in an exploration of the far northern parts of the early United States. But he fell ill and was forced to go south instead. That is how he wound up in Texas. Upon arrival in 1831, in the port of Velasco, Drummond came down with cholera. Surprisingly, he recovered enough to do two years of field work in the wilds of Texas. In that time he collected 750 species of plants! He also prepared 150 specimens of birds. These collections were the first made in Texas and were sent to museums and scientific institutions around the world.
Drummond collected rain-lily bulbs while he was in Texas. These he sent to the Botanic Garden in Glasgow, Scotland. From there they were distributed among plant lovers throughout England and Scotland. One gardener, Joseph Cooper, was among the first to grow rain-lilies in Great Britain. Cooper was in charge of the gardens at Wentworth House, Yorkshire, home of the Earl Fitzwilliam. A bulb that Cooper had grown was used in the description and naming of the species. It was in honor of the gardener Cooper and the botanical explorer Drummond that the evening star rain-lily was officially named Cooperia drummondii.
Another rain-lily bulb was sent to a doctor in Edinburgh, Scotland. When this bulb flowered, it was noticeably different from the ones grown at Wentworth House. Botanists examining it decided it was similar to the other Cooperia rain-lily, but of another species. It was named Cooperia pedunculata, the prairie rain-lily, in 1836.
So much history is wrapped up in these humble little rain-lilies. Think of this when you see them in bloom along our roadsides here in South Texas. Enjoy their beauty and their history!