‘When you have only two pennies left in the world, buy a loaf with one and a lily with the other.’ The ancient Chinese saying brings to mind hard times, but also echoes simplicity. Some of the most beautiful lily species are those with simple, small flowers, and many of those species would, indeed, have been available for sale all those centuries ago, but probably for medicinal rather than aesthetic reasons. We have, however, come a long way down the lily road since then. Species lilies are still adored by plantsmen and gardeners, but plant breeders have provided us with a stunning array of hybrid lilies and a bewildering choice of flower colour. Many have been bred with commercial cut-flower markets in mind, and others have been produced to tempt gardeners to fill up their summer containers and enhance their borders.
When gardeners are asked if they have favourite lilies, or any that they would recommend, the replies are usually influenced not so much by flower colour or perfume, but by the proven longevity of the plants. Knowing that a much-loved bulbous plant will rise again year after year, with no fuss or encouragement, is something that brings us great contentment; it is like the sunrise – you know it will always appear.
Dependable lilies in sunshine colours are one of the mainstays of Ted and Renee Beckett’s small, south-facing garden in Carlisle. In this secluded haven, tucked away from view from the busy street, the focal point of the garden is ‘the shady seat’, surrounded in summer with blossom tumbling and overflowing from hanging baskets and containers. The highlight of July’s display is bright yellow lilies. They grow in rectangular containers, with flowers on stems tall enough to brush against your knees when you sit beneath the arching canopy of the shady seat. Renee has long since forgotten the variety name of the lilies, but it is little wonder; they are now in their ninth year of flowering. So how does she keep them so healthily bursting with blossom? “I do feed them, but I certainly don’t spoil them. They remain in the same containers, but every two years I take out the bulbs and all the compost. I keep the biggest bulbs and put them back in the containers with fresh compost. Then I separate out the small, young bulbs which I put in pots and give away to friends after I have grown them on for a couple of years.” Ted comments on the enjoyment of seeing the lily stems arising from the soil every April. “It brings out the poet in you”, he says. And poetry is dear to Ted’s heart; his first volume of poetry, ‘Rainbow’s End’ was published in 2009. “There’s only one thing missing when I’m sat here amongst the yellow lilies in summer,” says Ted, “…a pint in my hand.”
Even though lilies require little input for such wonderful displays of blossom, they have always been regarded as special. Their association with mankind stretches back for millennia; their decorative and medicinal qualities have been recorded in ancient art and manuscripts. The Madonna lily, Liliumcandidum, was used in religious ceremonies well before the advent of the Christian era. The Lilium genus belongs to the northern hemisphere with species native to Europe, Asia and North America. Species vary in height from a few centimetres to around 3 metres, and it is safe to say that, from amongst the large selection of species and hybrids, there are lilies for almost all garden situations. Amongst the species, Lilium regale is still one of the most popular. White, waxy flowers are sweetly scented, and its bulbs can last for decades in the same garden soil. Classification of lilies is a complex and ever-changing subject, but the most popular hybrid lilies fall into three main groups: Asiatic hybrids, orientals and trumpets.
The upward or outward-facing flowers of Asiatic lilies, such as ‘Cancun’, ‘Rodiso’ and ‘Natal’,look perfectly at ease in containers or borders, especially when they are mingling with other plants. ‘Orange Pixie’ is ideal for window box or balcony gardening because it is low-growing and flowers are robust and long-lasting.
Amongst the oriental lilies, the white blooms of ‘Casa Blanca’ may prove too overwhelmingly perfumed for some, but I place a pot of these tall, 120cm lilies by my front door every year purely for their scent; for at least three or four weeks in August, dense, hazy fragrance greets me every time I open my door. Perhaps the most well-known lily in the oriental group, courtesy of the cut flower industry, is ‘Star Gazer’. More often than not, when you buy stems of flowers of this fragrant, pink and white variety from flower shops, their golden-tipped stamens are already removed in case yellow pollen falls from the flowers and marks furniture surfaces or clothing. But when you grow your own, you can enjoy the flowers in their natural state, pollen and all.
Trumpet lilies are the show-offs of the lily world. Their extremely large, exceptionally fragrant flowers are displayed on tall stems, often reaching a height of 150cm. ‘African Queen’ is well-named; flowers in rich shades of apricot or orange are borne, at great height, on sturdy stems. This aristocratic lily looks wonderful when towering above other plants in herbaceous borders. It is also useful for planting beneath first-floor windows. In summer months, when windows are open on warm evenings, perfume wafts into the house from trumpet-shape blooms that lookyou straight in the eye.
Not all lilies are so sweetly fragrant. Lilium pyrenaicum, known as the yellow Turk’s cap lily, is a species that spreads easily – too easily according to some gardeners – and has become naturalised in several gardens. Although the scent is far from pleasant, its small, yellow blooms are delicately attractive. The common Turk’s cap lily, Lilium martagon, is one of the best for naturalising in woodland gardens. Planted amongst grass in semi-shade, next to a garden seat, its neatly curled flowers can be admired closely, and then you can reflect upon the fact that this lily, first recorded in Britain in 1596, was one of the earliest species to be cultivated in our gardens.
Planting lilies in pots
Like many bulbous plants, lily hybrids are extremely well-suited to growing in pots. As a general rule, Asiatic hybrids will bloom around 100 days from planting in early spring. Three bulbs are ample for a 25cm wide pot, but greater impact of colour can be achieved with five bulbs in a larger pot. Put a few handfuls of multi-purpose compost in the bottom of the pot, place the lilies on top, and then fill the pot with compost to within 2cm of the rim. It is important that bulbs are covered with at least 15cm of compost. Oriental lilies require lime-free compost, and nearly all lilies thrive in compost that is enriched with added humus such as leafmould. Pots can be tucked away in an inconspicuous, cool, sheltered place until buds begin to push up through the compost. They can then be placed in a sunny or semi-shaded spot and kept well-watered in times when rain is scarce. After flowering, lily stems will fade in autumn and can be cut back as soon as they are dry and brittle. Bulbs can be left in the same pot for two or three years, but after this period of time, it is best to shake them out of the pot and give them fresh compost or plant them out in the garden.
Planting lilies in borders
As nearly all lilies prefer deep planting, with the exception of Lilium candidum, soil preparation is very important if bulbs are to have a healthy and long life. Good drainage is essential so soil should be broken up by digging and forking, and adding plenty of leafmould or well-rotted compost. In soils that are heavy, the addition of coarse grit helps to ensure a long-term, clear root-run for bulbs. The habit of placing bulbs on a thick bed of sand in their planting holes is probably old-fashioned now, but it is a practise to which I still adhere. During wet Cumbrian winters, there is solace to be gained from the knowledge that precious lily bulbs, in their sandy lair, are being offered as much protection as possible from surrounding soil saturation. Planted in close proximity to other plants such as herbaceous perennials, lilies are shown off to full advantage when in flower. Neighbouring plants offer developing lilies shelter from late frosts, and help to shade the area around lilies’ feet from the strongest sun in summer.