July 17, 2013

A lily by any other name

Fragrant Orienpet Lilies in my garden this hot and humid afternoon, just after a 
summer downpour complete with hail, wind gusts and lightning. 
This sturdy breed excels in the garden.

There is nothing quite like the towering, fragrant true lilies of mid-summer. Tall, elegant, scented like nothing else on Earth, and spectacular in the garden, true lilies ( those grown from bulbs) should be on your wish list every year - and this is the best time to think about ordering them, as the finest ( and few!) mailorder lily nurseries, take orders now, for shipment in mid-October, when they should be planted for flowers in your garden every summer. 

For more lily inspiration, click MORE below.

Nope- not even close to being a 'true lily', the Fire Lily from South Africa, Cyrtanthus elatus, seems to
thrive in the years' heat and humidity. This tender bulb must be grown in a pot in the north.
 I know - garden writers love to educate us about the proper use of botanical Latin, but there is a real purpose for this often difficult and elitist sounding way speak about plants, especially when it comes to lilies. Not unlike the label 'daisy', 'lily' often clumps together many plants which are not even remotely related, simply because people have associated them 'true' lilies. Mid-summer is true lily season here in New England, yet few people still seem to grow lilies ( aside from Daylilies - um, not 'true lilies, sorry). True lilies - those tall, often fragrant monocarpic perennial geophytic (bulb-like) plants that rise from scaled 'bulbs' which are best when planted into rich, well draining soil in late autumn. Many lilies can be long lived, and they can (should) get better with each year). Still, many seem to be overlooked by many gardeners, but there are many reasons why: they can be difficult to find ( at least the finest varieties), as specialist lily nurseries are few ( try the ones posted at the end of this post), and the selections carried by large retail nurseries are often boring, older ones, or short-growing pot-sized varieties.

 Oh, I know... then there is this new invasion of the Lily Beetle, which is curretly invading the eastern US and Europe. Pretty, little lady-bug like insects which can devastate an emerging lily stem in a couple of weeks. If you want to grow true lilies today, you will either have to try and pick the bugs and larvae off every day in the early spring, or use a systemic insecticide in a light dose, early in the spring. I know first hand, that this is what most lily growers do today, and lilies are the only plants in the garden where I will use a systemic, but only carefully on choice bulbs that are not bee polinated - honeybees, you know - too precious, and very sensitive to systemics.

If you really want to add lilies to your garden scheme, look now for your favorite varieties and take notes - bookmark these sites, and place your order ( lily bulbs are still a good buy, with most bulbs selling for less than $6.00), be sure to order three bulbs or more of each variety for the best show, and next July, let me know how you feel on that hot, summer evening when you catch a whiff of cinnamon and toothpaste ( how I describe the scent of trumpet lilies). You may be converted.

Look, Daylilies are fine, but true lilies are magic. Go try some, knowing these facts: Broadly speaking, lilies are broken into four groups.

Asiatic Lilies

Asiatic lilies - ( not Oriental lilies, those are different), are often organized in lily catalogs by their floral display - often sold are being outfacing, outward-facing or down facing/pendant forms. You know these, bright orange, brilliant yellow, dark red and nearly black, often with decorative speckles and black spots ( no, not 'tiger lilies', those are botanically Lilium tigrinum, and are a class upon themselves - and a deserve a post of their own). Asiatics are often the easiest lily to grow, but seem to be most susceptible to lily beetles. I don't generally use insecticide, but I do use a systemic in only two place on my property - in the greenhouse if needed ( always, carefully, and as a last resort), and, on my lilies, directly pouring just a table spoon or two into the crown in early spring seems to do the job, keeping lily beetles gone, and never, ever spraying the garden, or used where pets are.

Trumpet Lilies

 Oh, I love Trumpet Lilies. Regal Trumpet lilies ( my fav), nostalgic, super-tall and elegant trumpets are the stars of well-curated perennial borders- difficult to find as the bulbs must be dug late by growers, but these are a lily that will not spread and divide, but will grow larger with each year ( and taller), until a 6-8 foot stem with 30 buds is possible. The Easter Lily, Lilium longifolium hybrids, are also trumpet lilies, but they are not even close to true trumpets. If you can still find bulbs, just buy them and thank me later. The proper way to obtain Trumpet lilies? Order them now from catalogs, and the bulbs will be shipped in late October. Have a hole dug if you get early frost, and plant the bulbs as soon as they arrive. These are perhaps the longest living of lily bulbs, and the tallest with some varieties reaching 8 feet tall. Most are 5-6 feet tall, and they all bloom mid-season, July.

Oriental Lilies

You are most familiar with the Oriental lilies - large, white or pin centered lilies that smell spicy. Casa Blanca being an old favorite, there are so many new hybrids introduced each year, only carried by a few specialist nurseries, that I really don't know why anyone still grows the old Casa Blanca ( OK, I do, but I grow more new varieties and the side-by-side comparison will be self explanatory).


yes, a weird name, and perhaps the worst name for a class of lilies, but these are rather new to horticulture. Crosses between Oriental lilies and Trumpet Lilies, these are by far, the most beautiful lily varieties sold today, inheriting the finest characteristics of both types. Tall, strong stems, fragrance, and incredible colors and flower form. You may even find these sold in pots now at finer nurseries, and if you do, get some and plant them now ( they transplant fine), and you may be able to enjoy lilies this season, and many to come.


True horticulturists lean towards species, and I will include the 'Turks Caps' here, even though there are hybrids and named selections, they are so hard to find, and so prone to insect damage and difficult to grow, that I will not go into depth with them. Try them if you live in mountainous areas, the alps, or in the Pacific Northwest. The rest of us can just try them. Species lilies are precious and always hard-to-find, as well as hard-to-grow. A favorite of mine, our native lilies - Lilium canadense, L. superbum, and L. philadelphicum.

Looks-Like-Lilies, but not

Here are some non-lilies growing in my garden right now.

Blood Lily - not even close to being a lily, but this tender South African bulb makes a great houseplant
and potted bulb for the terrace. 

Daylilies, most often confused by gardeners as being 'true lilies' are properly known as Hemerocallis'.
A standby in any border scheme, never overlook newer introductions which are superior to old ones.
***My favorite lily bulb nursery list****

It's short!

These two are the sources I order from, but I do want to try some of the other nurseries listed below.

The Lily Garden , in Vancouver, WA - great selection, and sometimes special extra large bulbs
B&D Lilies  from Port Townsend, WA - not only do they grow all of their own bulbs, but they breed too. Terrific selection of Trumpets and Orientals, as well as downfacing Asiatic's.
The Lily Nook, a Canadian nursery, so some species cannot be sent to the US 0 great selection of Martagon lilies.

Other nurseries I may try this year:

Gratrix Garden Lilies, Canada
S-W Gardens - Ontario, Canada

US sources
Lily Pad Bulbs 
Cascade Bulb and Seed
Mak Lilies
Rainbow Lily Seed - source for rare lilium seed

UK sources
H.W. Hyde and Son

Be sure to check out the North American Lily Society web site for more resources. You may even want to join!


  1. Matt, what systemic insecticide do you use for the lily beetles, this year I was able to keep it at bay but they are still around. They are always after our Martagons, Trumpet and species lilies, lets just say they like them all. I don't want to give up the lilies but those Lily Beetles are driving me nuts. So any help would be appreciated. P.S. I am out every day picking those Liliy Beetles and squishing them among the other beetles.

  2. plantingoaks5:48 PM

    oh, but what about those nursery links you teased us with at the beginning?

  3. Lily beetle - ugh! Great advice about applying the systemic, which one are you using? And I don't see the two lily speciality nurseries you mentioned....

  4. I've had lily beetles for almost as long as they have been present in the US. I phased out most of my true lilies. But I've had terrific success with Orienpets, which have shown very little damage from the beetles. Larvae never survive on mine. I've never sprayed for the beetles, and don't bother killing them.

    Lily breeders have missed an opportunity to breed for resistance.

    This is peak season for daylilies right now. I only have 400 named varieties.

  5. I use Imidicloprid on the lilies to keep the Lily Beetle at bay, but use it carefully, as some studies show that it may be contributing to hive collapse disorder with honeybees. We keep three hives, but they don't visit trumpet or oriental lilies. I use a 1/4 strength, which is 1/8th tsp. per gallon, which I water into the ground near the bulb once, in the early spring. I learned this from some Liliy Society members. I ate using it, but as I said, this is the only insecticide I use, and at that, I use it sparingly, only on lilies, or in the greenhouse if I have an infestation of something nasty, like scale. Never use it on, or near a food crop, and follow manufacturers directions.

  6. Anonymous10:11 PM

    Conca d'or :-) Nothing compares to it!

  7. Anonymous2:50 AM

    The Lily Garden does a lot of their own breeding and produced most of their own bulbs, while B&D is known for their larger bulbs. Both have fantastic quality and selections.


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