“We once had a lily that bore 108 flowers on one stalk. The bees came from miles and miles, and there was the most disgraceful Bacchanalian scene; bees hardly able to find their way home.” Edith Sitwell

Liliums lily
Liliums to the experts or lilies to us mortals.
Lilium giganteum
Lilium giganteum in bloom

Edith doesn’t say what type of lily she grew to astound her visitors and the bees, it may well have been Cardiocrinum giganteum (Lilium giganteum himalaicum) the Giant Himalayan lily as these plants can grow up to 3m tall and were part of the lily fever that gripped England in the late 1800’s.

Liliums especially many of the Oriental lilies have possibly the most delicious and powerful scent of all the urban garden flowers, as I write this at my desk their scent is wafting in from the rose garden on a gentle summer breeze.

I generally think I am a frugal gardener, mostly propagating and dividing plants or lately growing from seed the plants that I would like to have in profusion through the garden. However there are two plants that I admit to splashing out on; roses and Oriental lilies. Roses because my cuttings have never grown true and lilies because they take so long to grow up and flower from seedling bulbs or offsets.

It is well worth investing in as many bulbs as you can afford if you want to fill your homes and garden with sumptuous flowers and scent for many years as each bulb can last up to 20 years. These pictures are from the lilies I planted only four months ago (very late getting them in) as dormant bulbs. As they were an unexpected special treat (from me to me!) I had not prepared the soil well but that is the wonder of lilies as they are not primadonnas you can plant them most anywhere in the garden (full sun, part shade, sandy or clay soil) and they still perform as they originate from woodland habitats and from valleys, mountains, rocky heights, and swamps which would account for the many area they grow well in my garden. If you had the time (or a battalion of gardeners!) you would dig well-prepared holes of light sandy loam with leaf-mould and enrichment of well decayed manure to achieve the best flowers. To be at their best though they need a good manure feed so plant them with other heavy feeding plants like roses and they will be happy.

Oriental Lilies Bacardi
Oriental Lilies Fujian and Oriental Lilies Bacardi in my garden.

As a rough rule a lilium is planted at a depth represented by three times that of the bulb, except in the case of L. giganteum, which is planted barely underground. Lilies have two ways of throwing out roots some only from the bulb which include candidum and all the martagons. However a number of bulbs grow not only from the base but as soon as the stem begins to rise, it throws out a fresh set of roots from the stem itself, above the point where it comes out of the bulb. These are the roots that feed the later growth of the stem and flowers. You have to be careful otherwise the stem-roots will push out above ground and finding no nourishment the growth of the plant will be checked and lily bulbs don’t like to be moved. But if these stem-roots are well underground, and their strong growth is further encouraged by the rich mulch and by watering in dry days of spring and early summer, the stem-roots can do their duty in supplying the stem and flowers with nourishment and I find the stem root growing plants do better in windy areas.

LILY THAT MAKES STEM-ROOTS, SUCH AS L. AURATUM. THAT MAKE NO STEM-ROOTS, SUCH AS L. CANDIDUM.

lilium bulbs
How the different lilium bulbs can grow.

Liliums had a growing heyday in the late 19th century when many new varieties were made available from explorations of China and a large export program from Japan.

Lily growing in Japan
Lily growing in Japan

 

Appearing in cottage gardens and prized in show gardens for the best and most exotic flowers and many new varieties were developed. With it’s beautiful scent and luminous looks you can imagine why the lily then became so popular in Victorian culture. It has always appeared in art through the ages, particularly the Madonna lily so often associated with religious paintings and symbolising purity. My favourite lily/lilium painting is Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent from 1885-6, and is a wonderful representation of the Belle Époque of this amazing family of flowers.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent and Tiger Lilies Sweet Surrender growing in my garden.

I can imagine these girls as young ladies a few years later attending the lily parties held by Beverley Nichols (my favourite garden writer) every year at his home Merry Hall. Oh, to be invited to this exclusive set. He writes

“I cannot imagine what life would be like without the perennial enchantment of the lilies, picked from the garden, carried indoors, set in front of mirrors and gloated upon….the lilies sing to you!”

Dear Beverley my thoughts exactly!