Country Gardener

Widely regarded as the authority on gardening in the south west

Lilies – very difficult to ignore!

There are about 100 species of lily available to gardeners with large, spectacular often fragrant flowers. They cover a whole range of colours including whites, yellows, oranges, pinks, reds and purples. Gill Heavens looks at a few of her favourites of Division 9 classification of these wonderful plant varieties.

Subtlety is not something normally associated with lilies, whose Latin name is the relatively simple to remember - Lilium.  

They are grown for their extravagant blooms and often overwhelming fragrance.  They are very hard to ignore.  Across the Northern Hemisphere, where they are exclusively found in the wild, they are frequent subjects of both literature and art.   They are the most popular flower at Chinese weddings as they symbolise 100 years of love.  

A lily was said to have sprung up from the sweat of Christ and Greek mythology states they came from the breast milk of the goddess Hera. 

 Lilium martagonPerhaps the most famous lily of all is the Madonna Lily, Lilium candidum.  Candidum means white, referring to the virginal, trumpet-shaped flowers produced in mid-summer.  These are held on racemes of up to 20 blooms with prominent golden anthers up to a magnificent 1.8m tall.  What is more they are deliciously fragrant.  They are native from Southern Europe to South West Asia and were originally brought to the UK by the Romans. 

Lilium candicum subsequently became associated with the Virgin Mary and features in religious texts and illustrations dating from 9th century Britain.  One of the most famous images of this sublime flower is in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1850 painting The Annunciation.  

Another summer stunner is the Regal Lily, Lilium regale, which can grow to 2m tall with large white, pink-striped, golden-throated flowers.  It was discovered by the plant hunter EH Wilson in 1903 on the border between Tibet and China, what a sight that must have been!  Reputedly this plant was the cause of his “lily limp” which came about when he was crushed by an avalanche whilst collecting bulbs.  Ensure you Lilium regaleshelter this sun lover from late frosts which might distort the forming flowers.  Again this plant has a tremendous perfume.  

The Panther Lily, Lilium pardalinum, was introduced from California in 1875.  Pardalinum means “spotted like a leopard”, which indeed it is!  It has crimson turk’s cap flowers, which hang down with highly reflexed petals, freckled maroon on an orange background. 

If you have a sunny spot and clay soil, it will add some hot drama to the back of your border.  This lily spreads by stolons, creeping stems, and therefore colonises an area quickly.  

Still in the animal kingdom, we have the Tiger Lily, Lilium lancifolium (syn. L. trigrinum).  This was first introduced from Eastern China by William Kerr who worked for Kew Gardens in the early 19th century.  From late summer to early autumn it produces 20-25 turk’s cap-shaped orange-red flowers, spotted purple, on each raceme.  

The cultivar ‘Splendens’ has larger, even more impressive, blooms.  The bulb has been Lilium pardalinum pitkinenseeaten in the Far East for centuries.

There are also lilies that enjoy the dappled shade found at the woodland edge.  Here they can keep their bulbs cool in summer but get enough light to photosynthesis.  The Martagon lily, Lilium martagon, is one such plant and was introduced into this country at the end of the 16th century.  It has a natural range from North West Europe to North West Asia.  For this reason, and the fact it hybridises readily, means that in the wild it can be found in many colours from pure white to speckled pale purple.  The word martagon comes from Turkish for a special type of turban, this is why it is often called the Turk’s Cap Lily. This lily is ideal for naturalising in your garden.  

If you wish to propagate your favourites then lilies kindly offer you many options; divisions, bulbils, scales and seed.  

You can divide your clumps in spring or autumn, but only when absolutely necessary as they are best left to their own devices.  

Some lilies, such as Tiger Lilies, produce bulbils in the joint between leaf and stem.  These should be removed in late summer/early autumn and planted on the surface of compost.  They should reach flowering size in three to four years.  For those a little more adventurous you can use bulb scales to increase your stock.  

Carefully remove the scales and carefully push, base downwards, into a well-drained compost mix.  Again they should take three to four years to come to maturity.  Then there is seed, which can be quicker than you would imagine and will produce many plants, virus free, and very cheaply.  

Of course there are downsides to the wondrous lily.  The dreaded lily beetle is a scourge to the lily lover.  Be vigilant and inspect often.  Remove and dispose of any of the carmine red critters and look out for the “bird poo” larva.  Plants may also fall prey to fungal disease or viruses.  

As always a healthy plant is more likely to fight off any attack. 

Lilies also get bad press because of their beautiful but staining anthers.  Most are best placed out of harm’s way at the back of the border, but if you are particularly worried, especially if you have cut them for the house, snip the offending anthers off.   

More importantly some species are poisonous to cats and veterinary help should be sought if your pet eats any part of the plant, including the pollen.

So popular are the lovely lilies that many beautiful interlopers have borrowed their name, such as day lily, lily of the valley, arum lily and even toad lily.  

They must wait their turn, today it is the true lilies’ day to shine.

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