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Lilies - Living Legends

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Asiatic Hybrid Lily 03-230x153Historical records suggest the Lily (L. candidum) was perhaps the first flower ever deliberately cultivated in the garden. Their beauty and fragrance inspired many legends during Greek and Roman times.

One remarkable but 'true' legend says:
That ancient Lilies were once deep violet purple. In actual fact, in those ancient times people had little knowledge about the origin or nature of flowers. Thus the Biblical reference to 'Lilies of the field' which would actually translate in today's language more like 'field of wildflowers'. So the 'purple Lily' in this legendary reference is much more likely to have actually  been confused with Anemone coronaria, the Wind Poppy which is commonly native to this region and is classically deep purple, blue or red.

Anyway, as the legend has it, the Roman god Jupiter placed his young son Hercules next to goddess Juno as she slept to drink her breast milk and thus become immortal. (If only immortality was really so easy!) As Hercules drank, some milk spilled onto the Earth below, falling on a patch of Lilies turning them white. The spilt milk which remained In heaven became the Milky Way. Later Juno was shown the white Lily by Flora, goddess of flowers, she became so transfixed by it’s beauty that she spontaneously gave birth to Mars without assistance of a father. Until Medieval times most people thought that a woman could become pregnant simply by touching one! If one were to ever look for a true fable, or an excuse for an unwanted pregnancy, this would have to be it!

Early Christians found this all a bit barbaric so dedicated the Lily to Virgin Mary. Numerous religious paintings showed Mary or Archangel Gabriel holding white Lilies as a sign of virginal purity and miraculous Impregnation. This beautiful variety is to this day known as the Madonna lily.

Yet in some Eastern countries where many varieties originated the Lily was hardly legendary but was cooked and eaten as a vegetable! For most of us, it is hardy to imagine any species of Lily being so plentiful that they could feed an Asian community for very long. But truly, the native Lilium auratum, especially as represented best by the highly-treasured Gold Band Lily, a robust, tall species with large open white star flowers with a distinctive white band in the middle of each petal and a heavenly perfume, does grow like a weed there. And not as one might expect in leaf mould enriched woodland and meadow soils as does its counterpart the Asiatic Lily, actually mostly native to North America and European woodlands.

Lilium auratum var. Gold Band and many related species and cultivars is often found growing wild on the grassy steep hillsides and brushy clay banks and gravelly or sandy land with perfect drainage and in full sun. Their bulbs quickly multiply and spread from every tiny bulb scale to produce large clumps. When washed and closely examined, these true bulbs bear a striking resemblance to the succulent Echeveria species or the House Leek, Crassulaceae sempervivum often know as Hen and Chickens. This is a clue to their successful culture. While only very distantly related, most Lilies actually grow in remarkably similar situations to those true succulent species, only slightly underground. As if by their tender nature, they need the extra protection a shallow blanket of loose soil can provide. And indeed if one studies the habit of both Echeveria and Crassulaceae, they, too, produce much shorter, but proportionally robust single spikes with a cluster of very Lily-like flowers near the top of their stems.

Today the Llly is celebrated as one of the most popular and easily grown of bulbs. There are 80 species and hundreds of named varieties with an ever-growing number of hybrid cultivars Most are hardy, vigorous and easily grown. At least a few varieties will adapt to almost any garden setting. And many gardens in the moderate temperate climates can nearly grow them all!

Many thrive in containers. Following the lead from what we know about them from their wild origins, the most important secret is perfect drainage. They will not tolerate wet feet, nor are they happy with baking, dry, hot ground. They thrive in volcanic soils or those that are sandy or gravelly. Many will also accommodate heavier soils or clay provided, once again they are planted on banks, slopes or raised beds where all excess water immediately sweeps away from them. Heavily enriched garden soils that retain plenty of moisture will certainly do them in! So wherever the land might ever at any time either during their Spring and Summer growing and flowering period or late in Autumn or Winter while they are dormant, ever become boggy and wet, the site won't work for long. Newly planted bulbs might last a season, or two with any luck, but most certainly they will succumb to basal bulb rot.

So always avoid heavy wet land with Lilies. A regular and even supply of moisture is Important, but never wet! When one is determined to grow them in a suspiciously wet environment, choose to grow them in individual pots or larger containers. Choose containers with no water resevoir in the bottom. And always place a generous layer of pumice or round river gravel or stones in the bottom to ensure perfect drainage. Partially sink these into the ground of the garden bed. make sure there is a layer of gravel, sand or freely-draining soil beneath them. Ground covers or annual flowers can be planted on top or at the sides of the pot(s) to better diquise them. The best are fast-growing annual species like Impatiens,  Mysotis (Forget-Me-Not), Pansy, Viola, Night-Scented or Virginia Stock, even dwarf Marigold or Zinnia. But avoid agressive Annual or Biennial species like Dianthus that might compete with the heavy-feeding Lily bulbs. The Annuals will help provide a little shading and soak up excessive extra soil moisture. This way the Lilies will be assured the perfect drainage they demand and  deserve. In colder climates wherever Winter freezing might be severe, lift these pots in the Autumn once the Lily canes die away. Store the pots in a cool dry, frost free postion. repot them every year or two in Late Winter before their tender roots and shoots begin to resprout.

When digging up or repotting Lilies or buying new stock, be very careful with their care. Lily bulb scales are soft and easily bruised. They also dry out very quickly which will encourage fungal infections and set the bulbs back, if not kill them. Always repot the bulbs immediately and never leave them out and exposed to the elements for any extended period of time. Whenever it is impossible to repot or plant them right away, keep them covered in a protective layer of damp peat, sphagnum moss or pottng mix so they remain protected. If bulb scales break off when transplanting, either pop them into the pot along with the parent bulb or place them in a pot filled with potting mix and 50% propagating sand. Usually, if the scales are undamaged and not dried out, these will strike fairly quickly. The first year they will produce possibly only one or more grassy leaves and a tiny bulb by their time of next dormancy. Within three years this tiny bulbs will reach flowering stage.

The 'small' Asiatic Lilies which were once commonly found in the meadows and woodlands of North America, Europe and Asia are by far the easiest for pot culture. Millions are grown each year by the Florist and Nursery Trade. Stems are strong and almost wiry to 3-4ft/90-120cm tall, sometimes more or less, dependent upon cultivar. Flowers are upward-facing open stars 5-8 inches/10-20cm across, evenly placed in candlabra fashion upward to the top of the stem. There are both single and double forms.  These come in an endless array of colours and mixes including every shade but true blue and black, but near enough. The original species were mostly orange, orange-red and yellow flowering types, sometimes with brown spots similar to the Tiger Lily on the inside of each petal. So these colours are almost always the hardiest and most likely to multiply and naturalise. The more unusual the hybrid form, and especially the lighter their colour  toward soft pink and white shadings, the more likely they will be short-lived, weaker plants with fewer blooms. They are truly hardy and easily grown almost anywhere from the sub Arctic to the subtropics. 

The bulbs of Asiatic Lilies should be planted just 2.5-5cm/ 1-2 inches deep in the pot or about twice that depth when planted into open ground, especially drier, sandy land. Plant one bulb to a 6-8inch/15-20cm pot. A 30cm./1ft diameter container might support three to five bulbs, depending on how large they are. There should be at least 1-2inche/2.5-5cm between each bulb. Avoid over-crowding the bulbs. While this is effective with Spring-flowering bulb species this technique does not apply to Lilies. They are quite heavy feeders. Asiatic Lilies produce all their roots from below the base of the bulb. So they need plenty of room for these roots to feed and spread. Usually whenever too many bulbs are crowded within their container one or more bulbs becomes sacrificial so the rest can grow and prosper. Planting 'less' is much more successful than planting 'more'.

The beautiful Lilium longiflorum, the classier and more over-stated side of Lilium candidum, is known as the Christmas Lily in the Southern Hemisphere and the Easter Lily in the North. In the Southern Hemisphere this beautiful and very fragrant large, waxy trumpet Lily does actually flower leading up to and right around the Christmas holidays. Calling it the Easter Lily in the Northern Hemisphere is more a marketing and sales contrivance of the Florist and Nursery Trade because this Lily can be so easily forced into early flower then. Lilium longiflorum looks a lot like L.candidum, the Madonna Lily, with an obvious Easter connection. When planted in the Northern Hemisphere temperate garden Lilium longiflorum will usually flower in Early/Mid Summer and can multiply to make impressive clumps. Over the years, the bulbs often tend to 'climb' toward the soli surface. This posses not problem or threat unless their growing position experiences Winter freezing. In those situations, the bulbs are best lifted and replanted a bit deeper every few years once they go dormant in Late Summer or Autumn. Otherwise, they can be protected with  light and loose or fluffy leaf mulch like Oak leaves or granulated Cedar, Oak or Pine bark. Just avoid any sort of mulches that pack down or remain wet which might possible rot the bulbs.

Whatever you want to call it, Lilium Longiflorium is also almost as easy to grow as its Asiatic Lily counterpart. They both have a very similar habit of growth, exactly the same soil and growing requirements and greatest ease of cultivation. The only difference between them is that Lilium longiflorum often sprouts new shoots and a crownal rosette of emerging foliage in Late Winter or Early Spring. This makes it somewhat more vulnerable to damage by extreme freezing events. The rosette of foliage is surprisingly resilient to cold, but repeated freezing could set it back or kill it outright. Where the Asiatic Lilies are much more likely to sprout only once sustained warmer conditions return in the Spring. This make the Asiatic species and cultivars much more likely to tolerate colder climates with a shorter growing season.

Hybrid cultivar L.longiflorum var. White Heaven and L.l var.White Sheen are conveniently dwarf with large, impressive blooms of fragrant, pearly pristine white on robust, strong stems. These hybrid cultivars are so difficult to tell apart, that they are often sold one-for-the-other. In contrast L.l var Snow Queen probably gets that name because it can have its head almost in the clouds! This very bold and impressive L longiflorum cultivar can also be grown in containers, especially the first year of flowering. But as the bulbs mature over the next several years, they not only increase in bulb size and number but also in height. It is not unusual to have these attain a height of 2m/6.7ft or even more. Newspapers and garden magazines regularly show pictures of these Lilies resplendent with a full head of up to 30-40 trumpet blooms towering over the proud Gardener's head.

Closely aligned along the same dimensions is Lilium regale, the Regal Lily. This is also called a Christmas Lily in the Southern Hemisphere as it, too,  flowers near, or slightly following Christmas. In the Northern Hemisphere garden Regal Lilies are usually Mid Summer flowering. Flowers are again white and trumpet shaped. But inside the trumpet is a golden yellow flush and on the outer side of each petal there is a distinct blush of purple along the midrib. The perfume is similar but more heady and intense, especially in the evening. A mature Regal Lily can easily attain 5ft/150cm or more and will carry 1-50 trumpet flowers, dependent on how happy it finds its location. When really elated, Lilium regale soon spreads to make amazing clumps. It is a wonderful cutflower, adored by bees, nectar-feeding birds and butterflies. It is also highly adaptable to large containers where it performs best when left alone to multiply and increase for at least several years without disturbance.

Another group of Lilies commonly grown include the Tiger Lilies,  Lilium tigrinium and a variety of related species and their many hybrid cultivars, all of which look  remarkably similar.  These commonly produce robust canes to 4-6ft/120-180cm with drooping open star-like flowers up to 5 inches/12.5cm across. Vivid orange almost waxy petals with numerous brown-black spots in the inside of each petal gracefully recurve at the tip which so aptly reflects the curving roof lines of Japanese and Chinese padogas where these treasured Lilies first originated. This is a somewhat wild and wayward creation which often escapes cultivation when it finds a situation to its liking. It has the unusual characteristic of producing small dark brown/nearly black bulbils all up the robust cane at the axis of each leaf. These strike very easily when either placed in a very protected patch in the garden. Or really best when removed and started in a flat or pot of seed raising mix in a partly shade warm corner.

The young seedlings often emerge later the same season or certainly by the next. They start out almost as grassy as Rye, so often get mistakenly pulled out as 'weeds' when left to fend for themselves in the garden. But within a couple of years, these will already reach early flowering stage. And in their development over a rather long lifespan they may eventually tower to 10ft/300cm with upwards of 100 blooms evenly arranged up their stems right to the top. A large mature stand of Tiger Lilies is indeed an impressive site to behold. The only 'down-side' to Lilium tigrinium is that they are notorious carriers of the Lily mosaic virus, a virtually uncontrolable and destuctive killer of most other hybrid Lilies other than themselves. Truly these are Tigers that ultimately devour all else around them. So best to plant them in a patch on their own.

The spectacular group of Lilies that so often attracts the attention of Gardeners are the wonderful array of Oriental Lilies, Lilium auratum and their many hybrid cultivars. In most recent times this include the Oriental Trumpet Lilies, or OT Lilies. Sometimes jokingly referred to as Over-the-Top Lilies which they truly are in the finest sense of the words. Oriental Lilies are hybrid cultivars from the 'edible' Asian forms. The OT hybrid cultivars are a recent triumphant cross between the Orientals and Longiflorum Trumpet Lilies. These have characteristics of both. Some like Triumphator are very robust, tall Lilies much like Orientals in stature but with Longiflorum-type leaves and immense fragrant, waxy white trumpet blooms with a deep purplish pink inner spot. OT Conca d' Or by contrast is much more a graceful, wiry stemmed Oriental Lily of somewhat shorter stature by habit, with large broad-petaled, outward and upward  facing immense blooms of clearest Canary yellow over a white base, fading to white at the petal tips. Their perfume is heavenly. They are hardy and very long lasting and easily grown in containers.

Oriental and OT Lilies are large bulbs, producing very robust, strong canes 4-6ft/120-180cm or more. These Lilies often produce many blooms loosely arranged in a branching candlabra style which can be 5-10in/10-20cm across. They are usually outward and/or upward facing flowers in mostly shades of lilac, mauve, pink, salmon, red, scarlet, purple-red to nearly black-red, white, cream, yellow and golden shades orange and many mixed colours in single and double. Most have a wonderful perfume which is stronger at night.  They are different in their habit of growth as they produce roots above the bulb on the growing stem almost as much as they do below the bulb. Bulbils also are produced usually underground on the stem above the bulb and sometimes at the top of the flowering stem or amongst the axil of top leaves.

Because of their large stature and habit of growth, these Oriental and OT treasures are best grown in quite large and deep containers. A 24in/60cm container probably would best suit no more than three good sized bulbs. These are best planted quite deep in the pot. Usually a layer of pumice or river gravel is placed generously in the bottom with at least 2in/5cm of open, loose potting mix above this and mixed into the gravel below. The bulbs rest upon this. If there is any chance of wet conditions, a little more gravel is placed around the bulb. Then the pot is filled with potting soil and well watered in once. Then not again until the shoots appear unless conditons become excessively dry.Once they sprout keep them just moderately moist.

While Lilies do prefer 'soft' sun i.e.bright morning sunlight or dappled shade during mid-day heat, they do not like hot or very warm soil. This is one plant that classicly prefers its 'head in the sun and feet in the cool shade'.  In the garden this is best achieved through mulching over and around the Lily bed. An alternative is to plant the bulbs under or on the shady side of low shrubs or groundcovers like Azalea, dwarf Coprosma, or Lavenders or amongst bushy garden Annuals or Perennial species, or amongst evergreen or coniferous groundcovers. The evergreen plantings, especially such things as low Juniper, produce an acid, fine mulch and shading that perfectly suits Llies while producing a most pleasing backdrop to their growth and flowering. Like a good mulch this sheltering vegetation gives them the cool, evenly moist well-draining soil they need as well as the sunlight necessary to produce high quality flowers on strong stems.

Although Lilies grow and multiply best in full sun, they also do very well in partial shade or light shade, especially the shorter Asiatic woodland varieties, provided the site does not become too deeply shaded in Summer, or too wet in Winter. When grown in too deep a shade, the taller forms soon develop weak stems which often collapse with the weight of heavy blooms. The smaller Asiatic species will often flower well the first season, but the excessive shading slows down their metabolism and so they slowly fade away with fewer flowers and progressively weaker plants as time progresses. The brighter and especially darker coloured species hold their colour and quality better with a little mid day or afternnon light shade. Planting them beneath the high light shade of deciduous trees like Japanese Maple provides bright morning and afternoon sunshine but a patina of dappled light during the mid day heat. This ideally suits many brightly coloured Lilium cultivars.

Lilies respond well to light feeding and mulches with well-aged manure or  mature compost, blood and bone and Phosphorous and Potassium-enrich fertilisers. They respond very well to regular foliar or liquid feeding. Too much Nitrogen will see them rocket upward on soft, sappy stems that easily collapse and often produce inferior blooms. Avoid Lime!!! While they would appear as many other bulbs species would to thrive on the Calcium that Lime contains, they hate it and will quickly sulk and die. When in doubt remember their Asian background from the volvanic Islands of Japan. Volcanic land is always acid pH. Consequently, avoid applications of mushroom compost which usually contains Dolomite or Lime. Also avoid fresh or 'hot'  and rich stable manures.

Lilies are best planted once they are completely dormant. This happens sometime in the Autumn through Wiinter into Early Spring. Early planting is the best time to plant so the bulbs can establish a good root system before the demands of Spring growth. When lifting and dividing established clumps this dormant season is also the best time.  As a general rule plant so there Is about 10cm. (4”) of soil above the bulb. Plant a little deeper in light soils and shallower in heavy ones or if bulbs are small.  Wherever the soil is at all heavy or could ever possibly become wet, add a handful of sand underneatth each bulb and dig this in. Then add another handful of sand over the bulbs when planting to stop bulb rot.  Then leave the bulbs undisturbed for years. Feed only lightly with a general plant food mixed with a little extra  Phosphate and Potash.

After flowering finishes, remove the seed head, unless the Lily is being grown for seed production. Removing the seed head will allow the Lily bulb to concentrate its energy into producing a bigger and better bulb for the next flowering season. While it is easy to forget Lilies after flowering, it is wise to continue foliar or liquid feeding until the Lily cane begins to yellow from the top. Feeding after flowering  time provides extra nutrients to enlarge and improve the bulb for next years' flowering.

Lilies are quite easy to grow from seed. This can be purchased or it can be collected from the garden Lilies. The plants cross pollinate very easily. Because most Lilies have such a variable parentage, they almost always produce quite a variety of flowers from every batch of seedlings. Many seedlings will closely resemble their parents. A few may be inferior forms but most of these are weak plants and often die out before ever reaching flowering stage. To create a cross-bred Lily simply take from one 'chosen' Lily the anther or pollen grains using a camel hair brush or even a tissue and gently touch these to the pistil of the selected bloom. Usually the pollen anthers of this bloom are removed right when it opens. This prevents those pollen anther grains from pollinating the flower.

Then allow the bloom to mature as normal. Some Growers go so far as to remove its petals and cover it with a loose-fitting paper bag so that no other insect pollination can interfere with the hybrid cross. Once the seed pod ripens, collect the seed just as the seed pod splits open. The seeds will appear as black-brown, flat, thin, papery discs contained in several long rows. Seed that is pale beige, tan or green is either immature or unfertilised and will usually not grow. Seed from most types of Lilies, especially Asiatic, Longiflorum species and Tiger Lilies can be planted immediately as it does not keep for long. Seed from Oriental and some OT Lilies should be stratified with refrigeration first before planting.

To stratify the seed simply place it in a plastic bag with a little damp sphagnum moss. Close the bag and place it in the refrigerator rather than the freezer for about two months, sometimes less. Then it will be ready to sow.

To sow Lily seed fill a seedling flat or container with potting soil mixed with 50% propagating sand. Pre-moisten this mix. Then lightly sow the papery seed over its surface. Cover this seed with a thin layer of the same soil mix. Then lightly moisten over it. If the seeds float to the surface, cover over them with a little extra mix. Make sure the seed container is marked to remember what has been sown! Place the container or flat in a bright, warm environment with good air flow but not excessively dry conditions. Keep lightly moist. Germination is usually fairly rapid but can be erratic. If seed does not germinate right away, the container can be set aside in a cold frame over the Winter and will often sprout by Spring.

Lily seedlings start out as small and grassy like Rye. Soon they will produce slightly broader and thicker leaves and later a small stem with leaves attached. Normally by then the seedling dies away into dormancy over the Winter. Then the following Spring it will appear again and this time a little larger.  Some Lily seedlings can bloom within 18 months but usually this happens in its third year of growth. Seedlings can be transplanted successfully but only while young. Usually vegetative Lilies in active growth are difficult to transplant. So they are often best left alone to grow undisturbed. Then once they are again dormant, transplant the tiny bulbs to a separate pot or a growing row or bed. In cold climates be sure that bed or row is mulched and protected from freezing.  It is fun and well-worth the effort to grow Lilies from seed and often very rewarding.  Because Lilies are quite variable they often produce surprising results and every new hybrid cultivar Lily adored today started out as a cross-bred seedling grown with caring hands and almost always from seed!

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dale-john 01-100x66 Dale Harvey and John Newton met in Melbourne Australia in 1981. Since then they both have supported each others careers while also building and maintaining their own. Read about how they were able to turn their joint careers into one and creating a dream of a better world starting in their own local community.

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