When talking about lilies, common names abound for plants that aren’t true lilies. Spider lilies, rain lilies, naked ladies, lilies of the valley, daylilies, canna lilies — the list goes on and on. The genus Lilium contains only “true lilies” according to whatever metric currently is in use by finicky botanists. They act like they’re the only people who’ve discovered how easy DNA analysis is and make us learn new names for old favorites.
A significant difference exists between true lilies and some of the other perennial herbaceous flowering bulbous plants that include that noun in their common name, and it dictates how you treat them.
True lilies don’t have a real dormant period; they’re non-tunicate bulbs, not covered with a papery outer layer like daffodils and such, and you can’t bring them home from the store and leave them on the back porch for two or three months before planting them. The bulb is actually comprised of individual fleshy scales and has small living roots that must not dry out during its seemingly “dormant” condition.
Surprisingly, the “lily” we all know, the Easter lily, Lilium lanciflorum, is a true lily, and knowing a little about the one you may bring home from church and how to keep it healthy until you plant it in the yard will be a good introduction to this genus. The six petals, fused towards the base, are actually a combination of sepals and petals, referred to as tepals. The Easter lily is an example of a trumpet-shaped variety. Lilies usually have multiple individual flowers held on the top of their stalk below that are an abundance of linear leaves, often occurring in whorls. When the flowers open, the anther, the pollen-bearing tip of the stamen, extends well past the other sexual parts and that sticky-powdery pollen will stain clothes or tablecloths. Whenever you use lilies inside, remove the anthers on any open flowers carefully.
Riverbanks Zoo horticulturists Eric Shealy and Andy Cabe share that a reliable and stunning performer they grow is Lilium ‘White Heaven,’ an Easter lily cultivar, which grows well in South Carolina. But don’t look for flowers until May or June — when you get an Easter lily for that religious holiday, it’s been forced in greenhouses to bloom early. Common names do abound; “giant Easter lilies,” Lilium formosanum, often grow to 7 feet or more and accommodatingly are easily grown from seeds, though this species is relatively short-lived.
Tips Around the House
As you probably know from experience with poinsettias at Christmas, plants in foil wrappers should be taken out of that protective sleeve and watered slowly and allowed to drain completely before you put them back in their decorative pot cover. Lilies are extremely susceptible to root damage if grown in less than very well-drained soils; if you let your beautiful Easter lily get water-logged, it won’t establish successfully when planted outside after all danger of frost is over.
All true lilies, plus daylilies, are extraordinarily toxic to cats, causing fatal kidney failure. Since Easter lilies so often end up in your house, if you have cats that browse, take precautions to keep any part of this plant, pollen, leaves, and flowers, out of reach, and remember to do the same with cut flower arrangements containing lilies.
The ABCs of Planting
Companies ship lilies either in the spring or fall. As soon as you make your order, start preparing a space for them. Well-drained soil is essential for lilies; they can get fungal infections easily if the bulbs stay wet, and that’s the end of what would otherwise be a long-lasting beauty in your garden, many even blooming during those dreadful days of dearth during July and August. Before your lilies arrive, pick an area of your existing garden that gets morning or afternoon sun, has good drainage (slight slopes are perfect), and contains some organic matter. Clemson doesn’t recommend amending each planting hole; if necessary, add modest amounts of well-decomposed organic matter to a larger planting area. Lilies prefer partial sun in our state, and the sunny edge of a woodland area can draw your eye to that cooler looking background when groups of lilies planted together are making their grand display from May through August.
Take it easy on fertilizer. Although I’ll give online nurseries credit for good planting and care instructions, they often suggest that along with your lily bulbs you purchase some rather expensive fertilizer, usually high in phosphorus (the middle number), but soil pH and available nutrients vary dramatically from site to site. That said, in South Carolina, almost all our soils have more than enough phosphorus. Unlike nitrogen and potassium, which leach out with rain and irrigation, phosphorus binds to soil particles. Nitrogen is often lacking, but too much promotes vegetative growth and can delay blooming.
If you haven’t taken a soil test but have added fertilizer or organic matter routinely, I’d just dig holes and get those lily bulbs in the ground as soon as you get them. My friend Barbara Smith, who spends all day giving expert advice to people (me included) by phone or email from her position with Clemson’s Home & Garden Information Center, says she doesn’t use mushroom compost in her garden as it is higher in phosphorus than other options. Erline Wiles, a renowned South Carolina gardener who is still doing hands-on work in her 90s, grows her lilies in her rose bed and fertilizes them lightly with a slow-release fertilizer in the spring.
The general rule of thumb is to plant bulbs like daffodils and tulips so they have as much soil on top as the bulbs themselves measure. A bulb 2 inches in height would be set in a 4-inch-deep hole. As easy as lilies can be, they actually should be planted with 6 inches of soil above them (you need to keep the drainage in your yard in mind and adjust accordingly) as they form roots not only on the base of the bulb but also on their below-ground stem. These help absorb water and nutrients and also provide more stability for what can be dramatically top-heavy plants. Plant in groups of at least three, spaced 8 inches apart.
Enjoying Your Blooms
Whew. That was a lot of advice, but the good news is that once you get them in the ground, your lilies may bloom for decades, and what dramatically stunning blossoms they have. They don’t need more water than regular garden plants, so keep a rain gauge and only water when necessary to provide an inch a week during the growing season. Lilies want shade on their feet, so keep a modest 2 inches of pine straw or other organic mulch on top of your beds and consider planting shorter summer bloomers around them so their stems won’t look like Jack and the Bean Stalk transplants in the garden.
In May or June, Asiatic lilies, at 2 to 4 feet, seldom need staking and bring their diverse beauty to your garden. They have a rich palette of colors, usually multiple blooms per stalk when mature, and great variety in the presentation of blooms with some facing upward, some horizontal, and some pendant with the six tepals held straight out or reflexed. Most Asiatic lilies lack fragrance, a plus for some sensitive people but a deficit if you love perfumed flowers. Barbara says she thinks her lilies dwindle over time as her yard is plagued with voles. If you have these vegetarian rodents in your yard, get some small-gauged chicken wire and line the planting hole with it, letting it come slightly above the surface, to dissuade these nuisance critters.
As it gets hotter, the even more spectacular and fragrant Oriental lilies, planted toward the back of your garden since they can grow to 6 feet, make a trip outdoors in the heat well worth the effort. When I got married, the most hard-working and dedicated gardener in Columbia, Willie Bee Henley, brought ‘Rubrum’ lilies for my cake. With downward facing clusters of deep pink flowers with darker markings, they sure made a Gregg Street pound cake — the recipe for which was printed in the Heathwood Hall Columbia Cooks for Fun and Flavor cookbook — take on a festive mode. But you know gardeners, always chasing after newer and better, and Leslie Woodriff in the ’70s developed a hybrid with upward facing flowers, called ‘Stargazer,’ which along with the white Oriental beauty ‘Casa Blanca’ are in flower arrangements galore.
If you have space, consider planting the tiger lilies native to Asia, Lilium lancifolium. Among their descriptions are “aggressive” and “invasive,” but a huge bed of these late summer bloomers, 2 to 5 feet, with dozens of downward facing flowers with recurved petals, can stop you in your tracks. Although they’re resistant to most lily diseases, they can harbor transmissible viruses and must be planted well away from your other lilies. The flowers are orange — what else for a tiger? — with dark spots on dramatically reflexed tepals.
My aforementioned friend and garden expert, Barbara, says that the backward curved tepals on tiger lilies make a great landing platform for pollinating butterflies, among them the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, our state butterfly. One reason these lilies multiply so dramatically, unlike other lilies which gradually increase in size over the years, is their ability to produce bulbils at the junction of the linear leaves and stem. As these structures mature and drop to the ground, another lily begins. If you want, collect them when they turn black and plant them in another area or in pots.
A lily native to our part of North America, Lilium superbum, also has the common name tiger lily as well as Turk’s cap lily. It is one of the few native lilies offered for sale; John Nelson tells me that native lilies tend to be very finicky about their habitat and are difficult to propagate. We should never collect them from the wild as their populations are declining due to habitat loss and the reduced practice of prescribed burns. According to the USC Herbarium, L. superbum has only been found in Pickens County in our state but is far more prevalent in North Carolina.
Hybridizers have gone bonkers over lilies, and there are thousands from which to choose. If you search the North American Lily Society, then select “culture,” you can choose “types of lilies” to learn more about the seven divisions. It’s an exhausting list for an herbaceous perennial bulb that is truly very easy to grow. If you have limited space, lilies do well in containers in a light potting medium. We screened part of our porch, and I’m planning to add lilies not only to my messy garden but also to pot up some of the fragrant ones. When they bloom, I’ll put them on the porch where we can enjoy their beauty and fragrance.
If you want to use lilies as cut flowers, don’t cut the stem any longer than necessary. Unlike many other flowering bulbs that have a dedicated floral stem separate from the leaves, when you cut a lily, you’re removing some leaves necessary for photosynthesis and for renewal of the lily bulb for next year’s flowers. Remove the flowers after they finish blooming so they won’t waste energy making seeds. Just like with other bulbs, don’t cut back the leaves, in this case on the stems, until they are completely brown. The relatively stout stems of lilies tend to persist longer than daffodil leaves. You can cut them when frost comes, although you may want to leave a remnant to remind you where your bulbs are planted.
Unopened lily flower buds have ridges, and if you need them to open in a hurry, you can gently press and tease on the most developed buds, remembering to remove those pollen-rich anthers when the flower opens. You don’t need to do much to have a glorious arrangement other than popping a few lilies in a vase or adding other garden treasures along with some greenery for a real showstopper. Small-leafed eucalyptus works well as it doesn’t take up much space.
Lilies hold up relatively well out of water for several hours, which is why they’re often used in bouquets. If you’re having an intimate dinner party at a small table and don’t want a large centerpiece, you can place an individual lily by each person’s place. Don’t worry about contaminating food; many cultures from the ancient Chinese to indigenous North American tribes used lily bulbs as food. Today, they are more appropriate as a feast for the eyes.