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Graceful Lilies are easy to grow

Lilies rank among the most beautiful, and graceful, of all summer-blooming plants.

Lilies rank among the most beautiful, and graceful, of all summer-blooming plants.

Lilies add rich colours and splendid form to almost any landscape. From the classic to the ornate, they will delight your senses and enhance your gardening experience.

Lilies provide an easy to grow, colourful addition to your garden and landscape. By choosing a combination of early, mid-season, and late-blooming cultivars, you can have lilies in flower from mid November through mid March. These hardy bulbs require only minimal care. Each has the capacity to grow, eventually, into a large cluster of flowering stems.

Valued for thousands of years, lilies are among the most varied of plants in their colour, size, and flowering time, and also in the conditions in which they will grow. One of the oldest of all cultivated flowers, the lily has been cherished since the days of the earliest civilis­ations. Records show that lilies were grown in Rome, Greece, China, Japan, and in ancient Egypt at least 3 000 years ago.

For centuries only a few species were known, the most famous being the gleaming white Lilium candidum (Madonna lily) — traditionally a sym­bol of purity — native to the eastern Mediterranean. Another species that was fairly widespread in Europe was Lilium martagon, which has dark spotted pink‑mauve flowers that open in mid‑summer.

Few plants are as versatile as the lily, a genus of mainly hardy bulbs with about 90 species. All are perennials, but they vary widely in size, colour, flowering period, and the conditions in which they will thrive.

Because some lilies, including the Madonna, can be difficult to grow, lilies were once considered flowers for the skilled gardener only. During the past 100 years, however, species that are easier to grow have been dis­covered, and many hybrids have been developed which are robust and disease­free, outshining their parents in vigour and variety of colour. There are even hybrids that grow reasonably true from seed, like the ‘Olympic Hybrids’, the ‘Empress Strain’, and the ‘Imperial Strain’.

It is worth saving seeds and sowing them every year, particularly with lilies like Lilium regale (Regal lily) which does not produce very many offset bulbs. Growing from seed is also ad­vantageous in that it guards against the spread of serious virus diseases. These diseases are spread by vegetative propagation.

The oldest hybrid, and one of the finest, is the unusual apricot‑coloured Lilium x testaceum (Nankeen lily), de­rived from Lilium candidum and Lilium chalcedonicum, a particularly tall, scarlet ­flowered species from Greece.

Lilies can be divided into two main flower shapes — the trumpet and the Turk’s cap. Trumpet lilies that are very wide are sometimes referred to as bowl shaped. There are also some lilies, the umbellatums, that have flowers that face upwards.

Trumpet lilies, such as Lilium regale and Lilium longiflorum (St. Joseph lily), have fairly large flowers. The trumpet flowers come in a variety of shapes, from narrow white flowers in some varieties, to elongated white trumpets with purple flecks, in others. Some of these plants are among the tallest of lilies, growing up to 3,5 m.

Turk’s cap lilies, such as the Lilium martagon, have smaller, pendant flowers about 4 cm long, with petals that nor­mally curve backwards at the tips.

An outstanding example of the bowl‑shaped lily is the spectacular golden‑rayed lily of Japan, Lilium auratum, which has white flowers 25 cm across, with a bright yellow cen­tral band on each petal, and a cover­ing of crimson spots.

Upward‑facing lilies have flowers clustered together in fine heads — like the orange lily from central Europe, Lilium bulbiferum croceum, which flowers in summer.

There are lilies of almost every colour, with the exception of blue. They vary from the pure whites of the St. Joseph lily and Madonna lily, through many pastel shades, pinks, purples, yellows and oranges, to the deep crimson of the popular hybrid ‘Paprika’. Many of the flowers have streaks or spots, in a variety of bright colours, which appear on a cream or white background.

The flowering season ranges from spring to autumn. One of the earliest species is Lilium pyrenaicum, from the Pyrenees, a liardy greenish‑yellow Turk’s cap lily with purple spots. Un­fortunately it has a rather overpower­ing smell at close quarters, as do a few other species, including Lilium mar­tagon, and is better planted well away from paths. These heavy lily perfumes are pleasant when they are not too strong.

One lily that does have a very plea­sant, sweet scent is Lilium cernuum, which is pale pink with red‑purple spots, and flowers during the summer months.

One of the latest to flower is Lilium tigrinum (Tiger lily) from Japan, which has orange Turk’s cap flowers flecked with black.

Lilies vary in height from about 50 cm to 3,5 m. Among the tallest lilies are the North American species Lilium superbum and Lilium pardalinum (Leopard lily) — particularly the var­iety Lilium pardalinum giganteum or ‘Red Giant’, and Lilium henryi from China.

The smaller species come in a var­iety of shapes and colours, some having upward‑facing blooms and others pro­ducing brilliant scarlet Turk’s cap flowers.

Lilies have originated in such varied situations that at least one species or hybrid can be found to suit almost any garden. Some, including the leopard lily and the golden‑rayed lily of Japan, need peaty, acid soil. Others, including the St. Joseph lily, the orange lily and most of the hybrids, will tolerant lime. Some prefer lime —  the best known examples being the Madonna lily and the Nan­keen lily.

Many lilies do best in full sun, but some need partial shade, such as Lilium superbum and the ‘Paisley Strain’ — so named because of their multicolouring, which resembles the pattern on a Paisley shawl. All prefer their roots cool, so they need ferns or other low­growing plants to shade the base of the stem.

A species that thrives in most soils or positions is the tall Regal lily, with its white trumpet flowers that are coloured red‑purple outside. Others that are fairly easy to grow include Lilium mart’agon and some of its off­spring, the ‘Backhouse Hybrids’. The colourful ‘Mid‑Century Hybrids’, in­cluding the upward‑facing, orange ‘En­chantment’, can also be grown without a great deal of difficulty.

These robust and generally easy‑to-­grow species and hybrids will thrive in mixed borders, as long as they are not crowded out. Their variety of colours and shapes makes them well‑suited to mixing with other plants, and the many summer‑flowering lilies provide colour after the blooms of irises and daffodils have faded.

Instead of planting them in the bed, they can be grown in individual pots and then be planted — in their pots — when they are ready to flower.

In cooler areas it is safest to grow some of the tender lilies as pot plants. These tender lilies, including the trumpet‑flowered St. Joseph lily, thrive in a pot or container under glass, and regularly give a good display of blooms.  Another species for pot‑growing is Lilium davidii from China, a Turk’s cap bloom with a profusion of bright orange flowers.

A border composed entirely of lilies can flower from spring to autumn, but most of the plants will need protection from wind and some of the taller ones will need support.

A background of shrubs, particularly rhododendrons and azaleas, will pro­vide a degree of wind protection and set off the lilies to advantage. Taller plants can be grown among the shrubs, so that they can be supported without staking.

Lilies particularly suitable for meadow gardens include the ‘Bell­ingham Hybrids’ from America. The flowers grow in shades of red, orange and yellow, spotted with maroon or black. Many other species will also adapt well to growing in an informal setting.

Lilies that grow well in roomy pockets in rock gardens include Lilium cernuum, with its fairly short‑lived upward‑facing flowers, and Lilium pumilum, with scarlet Turk’s cap flowers. Both need moist, well‑drained soil containing plenty of organic material.

Some species, such as Lilium tigrinum (Tiger lily) are likely to carry a poten­tially destructive virus disease, and should be kept well apart from other lilies in the garden.

Come back to this site soon. Part Two of this series will be posted soon and will deal with Planting and Caring for Lilies. Part Three will deal with Propagation of Lilies.