Fascinating Lilium

Credit: Peter Symcox

Many years ago, when I was starting to garden in earnest, I determined that, of all flowers, I had to grow lilies, and species ones at that. I bought various books on the subject, read as much as I could about their growing habits, what was needed for successful plantings, and tried to educate myself as much as I could on the subject of what was, to me, a most fascinating aspect of gardening.

Lilies are among the oldest of cultivated plants, and there are several distinct types, some of which have only basal roots, while others have a mass of feeding roots just above the bulbs themselves. I read that they need plenty of water during the growing season, but that the bulbs cannot tolerate excessive moisture – they will easily rot, or become “soft” – and that the most important thing is good drainage (but where in the garden is this not?).

Manure, I read, is not to be encouraged, however, well-rotted leaf-mould is welcome, as is a handful of wet peat moss incorporated into the growing medium at the bottom of the planting hole. Perhaps most importantly, I read that each bulb should be planted at a depth of twice the height of the bulb itself – i.e., if I had a bulb 7.5 centimetres deep, then the tip should be 15 centimetres below the surface of the ground.

Years later, Gordon Wallace, that expert lily grower on Vancouver Island, told me that lilies are tactile – if planted too shallowly, they will drag themselves down to their desired depth – but that they cannot drag themselves up. It has to do with the expansion and contraction of the roots. The exception to all this is L. candidum, or the Madonna lily, which should be planted with its tip just below the surface; furthermore, L. candidum does not like to be moved, whereas (and this was a tip from Denning Miller, son of Alice Duer Miller of The White Cliffs of Dover fame) it is possible to move lilies at any time during the growing season, even if they are in flower, provided that you do not let the roots dry out for a fraction of a second. And, to prove his point, he dug up some of his own L. chalcedonicum (Turk’s cap) already in flower, which he gave to me to plant in my budding garden in the fields of Vermont. Two hours later they were in the ground, they flourished mightily and, as they say, “performed” exceedingly well throughout the following years.

As time went on, and I became more learned, I came to realize that growing lilies was not at all the arcane process I had earlier thought it to be. Lilies are, in fact, easy to grow, provided one follows the simple rules of good drainage and depth of planting, and one is careful not to over-water. In fact, the ideal place for them is at the edge of a wood, where they have their roots in the shade and their head in the sun; either that or amongst the rhododendron in a woodland garden. Happy in such an environment, they will increase year after year, and then they may be divided.

A particular favourite of mine is L. regale, with its crown of elegant white flowers, each beautifully scented; either that or L. auratum – or indeed any of the orientals, with their huge flowers of white streaked with gold, or even just plain white (L. ‘Casa Blanca’). And then there are the chalice lilies, with their upward-facing flowers of brightest crimson or solid gold. Plus, if you’re lucky enough to find some, the L. canadense, which, growing wild in the eastern part of the continent, hangs its bells from delicate stems, resembling nothing more than a tiny Chinese pagoda.

So, as Sir Winston Churchill wrote in his essay on painting, plunge in, do not be afraid. Buy your lily bulbs and go ahead; they will reward you with years of pleasure, and prove to you that sometimes the most exotic of flowers can be easy to grow.