Glorious lilies reign supreme over lesser blossoms

So many varieties offer gardeners a chance to find perfect fit in garden

In The Garden

August 15, 2004|By Nancy Taylor Robson | By Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Tall, stately, and regally clothed in rich-hued blooms, lilies are the empresses of the garden, commanding attention wherever they appear. Lilyflowers can be 8-inch-long trumpets that exude perfume, big, ruffle-edged starbursts waving on sturdy, eye-high stems, chandelier-tiers of Turks' caps with peeled-back petals, and delicately sculptural, like the shell-pink Asiatic 'Aphrodite,' which resembles a carefully-wrought origami bloom.

Because they are so tall -- many reach 4 feet and more -- lilies are staples for back of the border while their waxy blooms offer a distinct contrast in size and texture to surrounding perennials. But lilies are also a wonderful way to draw the eye to a specific spot.

"With their height and vibrant colors, lilies make a great focal point," says Mike Cady, horticulturist at Jackson & Perkins in Medford, Ore.

They are also great cut flowers, easily lasting for a week or more in bouquets. And because plants usually bloom prolifically, cutting doesn't sacrifice the garden's overall beauty.

"Lilies normally produce so many flowers per stem you can easily clip a couple here and there and not disturb the garden display," says Jo-Anne Ohms, president of John Scheepers Inc. in Bantam, Conn.

Lilies (Lilium), which have been cultivated for thousands of years, are members of the enormous Liliaceae family, which includes lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis), day lily (Hemerocallis), toad lily (Tricyrtus) and a slew of others. But the single word 'lily' usually refers to the big-bloomed, bulb-grown babes that steal the summer show. In this group, there are several major classes or variety types, including Orientals, Asiatics, Trumpets, L. tigrinum, or tiger lilies; and heirloom Species Lilies, which unlike all the others, have remained virtually unchanged for millenniums. (See box.)

"Species lilies are unhybridized and include things like the Madonna lily (L. candidum)," says Dick Zondag, president of McClure & Zimmerman in Friesland, Wis.

A recently introduced addition to the pantheon is Orienpet, a cross between Oriental and Trumpet lilies.

"Orienpet is a terrible name," says Steve Frowine, horticulturist at Dutch Gardens in Burlington, Vt. "It sounds like Chia pet. But the end result is wonderful. Orienpet lilies are tough, beautiful, and very easy to grow."

Despite the funky name, the cross has produced a classy plant, melding into one flower the admirable traits of two different parents.

"Oriental lilies have huge flowers, stunning perfume, and sturdy stems," says Rene Beaulieu, internet content director at White Flower Farm in Litchfield, Conn. "But their color palette is limited to white and every shade of red from blush pink to crimson. By crossing Orientals with Trumpets, breeders have expanded the color palette to include yellow, gold, and orange, and all the variations possible with those colors."

But it isn't just the range of colors that are new to Orienpets. It's also how those colors contrast in a single bloom. Instead of one color gradually shading into another, Orienpets are often determinedly bi-colored. For example, the hot pink throat of `Triumphator,' stops abruptly at wide marble-white margins, while `American West' sports the sun-gold, singed orange, and mahogany of the desert punctuated with three green center streaks distinctly outlined in yellow.

One great thing about lilies - aside from their spectacular looks -is their length of display. Depending on the type, lilies usually start blooming in June beginning with the Asiatics followed by the Tigers, Trumpets, Orientals and Orienpets and finish up with the beautiful ruddy blooms of L. speciosum var. rubrum in September.

"The major classes tend to bloom at different times," says Cady, "so you can have a show of bloom for a long time."

Not all lilies are tall. Some, like the pixie Asiatics top out at 12-18 inches, which makes them perfect for pots. However, be sure to protect pots from wild temperature swings in winter.


In general, lilies are easy to grow.

"They're very hardy, which makes them great for the beginner," says Zondag.

One key is well-drained soil. Lily bulbs are succulent and can rot in boggy conditions. Also, follow planting directions for depth to keep them from pushing themselves up as they grow roots. When ordering lilies, note shipping dates in individual catalogs. Some catalogs only ship in spring, others only in fall.

"Fall planting enables lily bulbs to establish a solid root system without also trying to grow stem and foliage," explains Ohms, whose company ships in late October.

Other companies ship lilies only in spring, because of the timing of the lily harvest.

"[Our] lilies are harvested very late in fall and then held in cool storage all winter," says Frowine.

Orienpets are limited in number this year so order early.


McClure & Zimmerman

P.O. Box 368

Friesland, WI 53935-0368


John Scheepers Inc.

P.O. Box 638

Bantam, CT 06750-0638


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