Lilies are a member of the family Liliaceae. This plant family includes over 200 plant genera, counting the common Agapanthus, Asparagus, Allium, Scilla, Hemerocallis and Fritillaria. The genera that are very closely connected with Lilium include Fritillaria, Cardiocrinum and Nomocharis. In fact, during the long botanical history, many species have shuttled among these genera.
The botanical name of Lilium has been derived from the Latin term, which is a Linnaean name. The Latin name of the species has its origin in the Greek leírion, which is normally believed to mean true – white lilies as embodied by Madonna lily.
In the past, various different flowering plants were named “lily”, but most of them were very faintly similar to the true lily. Such flowering plants included fire lily, water lily, calla lily, lily of the Nile, lily of the valley, cobra lily, kaffir lily, trout lily, ginger lily, Peruvian lily, leek lily, Amazon lily and several others. For instance, while all the English translations of the Bible mention the Hebrew shōshannā, shōshan, and shūshan as “lily”, but the “lily among the thorns”, which finds mention in Song of Solomon may possibly be the honeysuckle.
True lilies are flowering perennial plants that grow up to a height of anything between 2 feet and 6 feet (60 cm and 180 cm). These plants have tunicless (naked) scaly bulbs underground. In fact, these bulbs are the over wintering parts of the plant. In a number of species that are native to North America, at their base, the bulbs develop into rhizomes. You can find several smaller bulbs on these rhizomes. On the other hand, some lily species also form stolons. Nearly all the bulbs are buried deep under the soil. However, the bulbs of some species are found close to the surface of the soil. There are some species of lily that develop stem-roots. Usually the bulbs of these plants grow at some depth under the soil and every year they grow new stems that give out adventitious roots on top of the bulbs, as they come out of the soil. These adventitious roots are over and above the basal roots that form at the bottom of the bulbs.
Lilies produce large flowers that are usually fragrant and appear in an assortment of hues, including whites, reds, yellows, pinks, purples and oranges. Some flowers have markings like brush strokes and spots on their petals. Lilies generally flower late spring or during summer.
The flowers of lily plants appear in umbels or racemes at the stem tip and have six tepals that are either reflexed or spreading, giving the flowers a variety of shapes varying from funnel to a “Turk’s cap”. All the tepals are detached from one another and each flower has a nectar at its base. The ovary of a lily flower is “superior”, which denotes that it appears above the point where the anthers’ attachment is. The flower gives way to a fruit, which is a capsule comprising three cells.
Lily seeds mature toward the end of summer. It is interesting to note that these seeds have different, and at times, multifaceted germination patterns. Many species have adapted themselves well to cool temperate climatic conditions.
As one would expect, nearly all the cool species lilies are deciduous and in their native habitat they lie dormant during the winter months. Nevertheless, some cool species that are found growing in places having a mild winter or hot summer, such as the Lilium longiflorum, Lilium catesbaei, and Lilium candidum shed their leaves and have a brief dormant phase during the summer or in autumn. They start sprouting again from autumn to winter, giving rise to dwarf stems that bear a basal leaf rosette till there is sufficient chilling requirement. These stems start elongating as the climate begins to warm up.
Since the prehistoric days, people have painted lilies on walls and ceramics and these illustrations enable us to know that these flowers have been popular for no less than 35 centuries. The earliest such paintings date back to the 15th century B.C. They are attributed to the people of the Minoan civilization on Crete, a Mediterranean island. The lilies that have been illustrated in these paintings are Lilium candidum, which are extremely popular even to this day. The Romans are credited with bringing lily with them to Britain through Europe. In the Middle Ages, people in Europe revered the lily as a holy flower and is related to the Virgin Mary. As a result, the flower acquired the name of the Madonna lily. During the end of the 16th century, a number of other European species, especially Lilium martagon, supplemented Lilium candidum or Madonna lily. The first American lilies, especially L. canadense or the meadow lily, reached Europe from Canada by 1629.
People started bringing lilies from the Far East, Japan and China and introduced to Europe by the 19th century. By this time, people had started plant collecting and this continued till the 20th century, when newer plants were being introduced continuously. However, what is surprising is that cultivation of Lilium regale or the regal lily, which is among the most popular lilies, was still not introduced to Europe by this time. Cultivation of this lily species started only in 1903 after E. H. Wilson, a renowned plant collector, sent bulbs of this species from China to Europe.
It is worth mentioning here that all the species that were introduced during this period were from the wild. The European hybrids surfaced for the first time only in the 19th century. This is something really surprising considering that despite being in cultivation for such a long period, lilies were not hybridized earlier. However, some plants were reported to have been bred in Japan. All through the 19th century, there was a continuous trickle of new hybrids. The number increased significantly at the start of the 20th century. Interest in hybridizing lilies increased greatly after the World War II. Since then, several hundred lily hybrids were created in order to whet the increasing appetite of gardeners as well as lily lovers worldwide.
Till the last part of the 19th century, lilies were now very popular in North America and, hence, not cultivated extensively. However, plants native to the east coast like Lilium superbum were already introduced in a number of gardens by the beginning of that century. In addition to Lilium superbum, four species having their origin in foreign lands, including the ever-present Lilium martagon, were also grown in some gardens. By the middle of the 19th century, more plants from the west coast were being introduced in the gardens while new foreign species continued to enter America. Nevertheless, till the end of that century, they still remained relatively atypical in American gardens in comparison to Europe. By this time, the popularity of these species increased. At the same time, the development of these species, with regards to new introductions as well as hybridization, was reflected that in Europe.
Breeding your own lilies
Why breed lilies
Lilies in containers and under glass
Cultivation of the lilies
Growing conditions for the lilies
Lilies in the garden
Gardening with lilies
Propagation of lilies by stem bulblets and bulbils
Propagation of lilies by bulb scales and division
Propagation of lilies by hybridization
Propagation of lilies by tissue culture
Propagation by seed
Lilies’ fungus diseases
Other lilies’ problems
The lily species
The lily species – American section
The lily species – Trumpet & Asiatic section
The lily species – other sections