The Gardener’s Guide to Lilies

Stately lily plants, with their exotic flower forms and their great variety in colour and size, add a dramatic accent to the summer garden.

The Gardener's Guide to Lilies

One of the oldest cultivated flowers, the lily has been cherished for at least 3,000 years – in ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece, China, and Japan.

For centuries only a few species were known, the most famous being the pure white Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) – traditionally a symbol of purity – from the eastern Mediterranean. Another species fairly widespread in Europe was L. martagon, with nodding dark-spotted pink-mauve flowers.

Few plants are as versatile as the lily, a genus of mainly hardy bulbs with about 90 species. They vary widely in flower size and form, height, colour, flowering period, planting schemes, and the growing conditions they need.

Like many other wild plants, lily species can be difficult to transfer to the cultivated garden. Their requirements are not always understood, and it is sometimes difficult to re-create a suitable situation for them. When transplanted, if they survive at all, these lilies often languish for a season or two. Nevertheless, wild lilies have caught the fancy of plant breeders, who have produced hybrids from them that are generally far superior to their parents.

Hybrid Lilies 

For summer colour in the garden, the hybrid lilies are a welcome addition. When most spring perennials have bloomed, lilies start to flower and provide continuing interest into late summer. As its many buds open each day, an established clump of lilies will bloom over an extended period. Coming in all colours but blue – some are in solid colours, others may be freckled, spotted, or flushed – and having a very wide range of sizes and forms, hybrid lilies can be used in a great number of ways.

After more than a half-century of hybridizing by professionals as well as amateurs around the world, named varieties now exist that are free flowering, robust, and disease resistant. Many outshine their parents in vigour and variety of colour and form. Named varieties are propagated vegetatively from the bulbs’ scales and are identical to the parent.

Some lilies are grown commercially from seeds from selected crosses, making them relatively inexpensive. They vary from one another only slightly, usually in colour rather than form.

They are sold as strains, such as the Burgundy, Golden Splendor, and Imperial strains. They can be grown in a mixed border with evergreens and deciduous shrubs as a colour accent, used among perennials, or grown in pots, or for cut flowers.

Shapes & Forms of Lilies

Lilies have a variety of forms. Flowers may face upward, flare horizontally, or hang in inversed tiers. The trumpets, so called for the flaring trumpet shape of their flowers, are exemplified by the Sentinel strain and the Easter lily (L. longiflorum). Many lilies are shaped like saucers, which face either upward or outward. ‘Enchantment’ and ‘Connecticut King’ face upward; the Imperial strains face outward. The familiar Turk’s cap form is represented by L. lancifolium and L. davidii, as well as most of their hybrids. ‘Nutmegger’ and the varicoloured Harlequin Hybrids have that shape, too.

There are other variations and combinations that many plant breeders find fascinating to work with in order to produce new lilies. Combining the different forms, colours, and seasons of bloom has become an unending challenge.

Many lilies are fragrant. The Trumpet, Aurelian, and Oriental hybrids are so heavily scented that they can be overpowering in a confined area.

Most of the species cross easily with only a few others. Over several decades, significant breakthroughs by breeders in Canada, the United States, New Zealand, and Japan have resulted in greater vigour, adaptability, and colour range. Improved production methods greatly increased the availability of hybrid lilies to growers.

In a mixed border, lilies will make a good show as long as they are not crowded by other plants. Because they are not particularly attractive when out of bloom, lilies look best when grown with ground covers or low-growing companion plants that do not hinder lily roots.

A planting of lilies, such as the large Trumpet types, early-flowering Asiatics, or later-flowering Oriental hybrids, with low-growing annuals at their base, is a magnificent sight. A clump of lilies in bloom, between or in front of shrub plantings, also creates an attractive picture. For two or more weeks the added colour complements the green foliage.

Hybrid lilies have been grouped under headings loosely based on species, origins, and flower forms, but there is overlapping. For instance, the Asiatics, most of whose parents originated in China, are usually lilies bred from L. longifolium, L. davidii, L. cernuum, and others that readily intercross.

The Asiatic hybrids are the most widely varied group in colour and form. Some have upright flowers; blooms of others face outward; and some have backswept petals. An established clump of Asiatics has one of the longest blooming periods of all lilies – from early summer to mid-summer. They are the hardiest and most reliable performers. Many breeders consider them to have the greatest hybridizing potential.

American hybrids are derived from native American species. Best known are the Bellingham Hybrids. Hybrids developed in North America from non-natives are not included in this group.

Martagon hybrids are most often used in natural settings at the edges of wooded areas. Among the first of the lilies to bloom, they should not be disturbed after being put into place. They may take two years to reappear after transplanting.

Backhouse hybrids originated before 1900 in England. They are the offsprings of L. martagon, a lily native to European mountains and western Asia to Mongolia, and L. hansonii, of Japan, Korea, and Siberia. Small flowered, they have many blooms, do well in shade, but are not widely available. The newer Paisley strain is similar.

Trumpet hybrids are the offsprings of four Chinese species: L. regale, L. sargentiae, L. leucanthum, and L. sulphureum. A clump of white, yellow, or pink Trumpets standing 1.2-2 meters tall is a spectacular sight in midsummer. They are less hardy than the Asiatics and have fragrant, usually outfacing or occasionally pendent flowers.

Aurelian hybrids result from crosses of the Trumpets with the Chinese L. henryi, which imparts adaptability and additional hardiness. Varying in form from reflexed stars to wide- flaring bowls and trumpets, they often have willowy stems that need support. They bloom from mid to late summer.

The most exotic and difficult hybrids are Orientals, with magnificent flowers in shades of white, pink, or red on sturdy stems. But they are susceptible to bulb rot and virus disease, and many lily growers settle for one season of colourful bloom and treat them as annuals or biennials. They are derived from L. auratum and L. speciosum. Jamboree hybrids are closer to L. speciosum and are among the most dependable of the Orientals. They bloom in late summer.

Among the true species, L. candidum, L. longifolium, L. henryi, L. regale, L. martagon, L. superbum, and L. speciosum are easy to obtain and among the most reliable.

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