From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on April 6, 2005

Lilies! The Garden Aristocrats!

The Lily family, Liliaceae, contains 200 or more genera and some 2000 species. While some species provide food (Allium and Asparagus) and others medicine (Aloe), and so on, with this large family's attributes, I wish to focus on the very large number of valuable, decorative species that seem to be in front of my face, and probably yours, every few days at this time of year in one kind of ad or catalog, or another. They are Lilium. I'm thinking of the highly ornamental ones, those with magnificent flowers of many colors that produce blossoms spring through much of September. What's not to love about them?

Nothing. And the proof is in the fact that one species, the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum), has been the subject of mythology, legend and religion for perhaps five thousand years, beginning in ancient Sumeria. It later became a sacred Minoan flower. The modern nickname, of course, comes from the Christian era, where during the Renaissance it became an icon of Mary's Immaculate Conception. This flower's history is as fascinating as its beauty.

There are about one hundred species of these mostly hardy perennial bulbs, and there are nearly countless hybrids. But there is much to know about their kinds and culture. Especially the vast number of hybrids that came about post World War II. It's been said that the entire family has no "poor relations", since each is regarded as being perfect in its own way.

There are nine divisions and there are subdivisions within some. The first eight divisions are all hybrids derived from other species, with the eighth division consisting of hybrids derived from interdivisional crosses and hybrids. Division nine consists only of true species.

Scent characteristics vary from unpleasant to unscented to scented to highly scented. The subdivisions within some are based on the shapes of the flowers. These include the following: upward facing, outward facing, pendent, recurved (also called 'turkscap' with the petals of the blossoms strongly swept back), funnel-shaped, trumpet shaped, flat faced, star shaped, bell shaped, and bowl shaped.

Lilies are very hardy with most growing in Zones 3 or 4 to 8. They do require a cold dormant period, and therefore do not do well in warm climates or as houseplants without a forced dormancy through refrigeration. Their range in height is between one and a half feet and ten feet.

The first to bloom are the Candidum hybrids of Division 3. These include the Madonna lily and are frequently scented with mostly recurved flowers.

By mid-June, some of the Asiatic lilies in Division 1 will begin to put on a display and others will follow in mid-July. Their enormous diversity of shapes and colors as well as their long blooming season make them the star of the early to mid-summer garden.

In late July the Aurelian hybrids show off. Their flowers are large on tall stems and favorites of hummingbirds whose vibrant glows augment the narrower range of lily colors of these Division 6 lilies.

The lily garden reaches its peak from August into September with displays of flowers that look as if they were the product of an artist's brush. They are dazzling 'en masse'. The color range is huge as is the variety with spotting and freckles that one might choose. These are the Oriental lilies of Division 7. As night falls they continue to remind one of their presence with their powerful fragrance. If you're inclined to bring a blossom inside, be aware that the fragrance is so strong as to invoke intense delight, or, abhorrence, or even an allergic reaction.

Some good news that ought to delight the lily-curious or lily-uninitiated: All lilies are easy to grow. The most important requirements are adequate moisture, good drainage (to twelve inches), and sufficient sunshine. Some shifting shade is okay, but never plant near or under trees. Lilies are a bargain when one looks at the little space they take up in exchange for the spectacular show they put on.

Not unlike clematis, hosta and some other plants, they do best with their feet (roots) shaded and their heads (flowers) in some sun. A perennial groundcover such as vinca, or other low growing, shallow rooted companion plants will enliven the overall planting view, until the flowers are on display. What will come in time is seedlings, seldom inferior to the parents and sometimes superior, to the point that you might wish to separate and plant them in a separate bed or place. These should be seen as gifts from both the beautiful plants you purchased and your own efforts to keep them productive. Everything is a two way street and you must claim some credit, if credit is due. Thin out the bed, and rescue the newcomers, and see what you get.

You will find most selections are reliable performers year after year, with only a few not being as persistent. The old adage still holds true: put a five dollar plant in a fifty dollar hole. Lighten and enrich the soil with peat moss or well composted organic matter. If the soils are especially heavy, mix in some sharp builders' sand or light gravel to improve the drainage. The addition of some super-phosphate will help the bulbs for several years. Plant in holes at least three times as deep as the height of the bulb. Spread the roots of the bulb, cover them with soil, and then fill in the hole.

Only Madonna lilies need to be planted shallowly, with no more than an inch of soil covering them. Good gardening practices apply across the board. These include supplying regular moisture especially during active growth, applying a balanced fertilizer as stems emerge and again when flower buds are forming, and mulching to retain moisture and suppress weeds. Staking taller plants will improve their appearance and prevent damage from wind and severe weather. Deadheading faded flowers in a timely way will prevent seed formation and keep the bulb strong.

Lilies can be planted any time the soil can be worked. This being said, fall is usually the preferred time. If all of this sounds just to good to be true, lilies are not without their enemies. You may know the best ways to combat slugs and snails, aphids, mites, beetles and caterpillars. These are the most likely problems you might encounter. If these don't stop you from growing tomatoes or other favorites, I invite you to dip into the catalogs or books and begin to search for some of the most exotic and stately flowers you can have in your gardens. Your biggest problem will likely be to limit your selection. But, you're looking for royalty. And, drama! You'll find it.

Note: Nomenclature and nicknames can be problematic. Daylilies, while in the lily family, are not in the genus Lilium, but rather Hemerocalis.

From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on April 6, 2005

© 2005 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.