Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Western North Dakota is the easternmost limit of the range of the beautiful gumbo lily. The plant occurs in nearly all of our western states.
This short, tufted plant is a nearly stemless perennial from a thick taproot. Leaves are about 6 inches long, lance-shaped, and toothed. Flowers, when young, are white, but soon age to a rose or lavender color. These flowers, which may be over 3 inches wide, give the plant an ungainly appearance. Young plants may have one or two flowers and a dozen leaves, but older plants may have a heavy rootcrown bearing a dozen flowers and nearly a hundred leaves. Rough seedpods about an inch long form soon after flowering.
Gumbo lily, sometimes called "butte primrose," likes the bare clay buttes, arroyos, and claypans found in our western badlands and grasslands. Cattle seem to avoid gumbo lily; nevertheless, the plant never becomes overly abundant. References indicate that young shoots and roots of some Oenotheras are eaten by humans, but I could find no mention of any economic uses for gumbo lily.
This is not a true lily, but a member of the evening primrose family (Onagraceae). Flowers in this family generally open in late afternoon or evening for pollination by night-flying insects. The names Onagra and Oenothera stem from a name used by the Greek intellectual Theophrastos (370-285 B.C.) for the fireweeds that are also members of this family. The specific epithet caespitosa means "tufted" in botanical Latin. Gumbo lily was first collected for science by the eminent English botanist Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859). Nuttall visited the Mandan villages in what now is North Dakota in 1811.