July 25, 2020

Summer Lilies and, Yes - Time to Think About Ordering Bulbs

'Bell Tower' is an appropraite name for this 'Downward Facing" Orienpet lily. This young bulb will grow into a giant in just a few more years, towering over 6 feet tall. The large flowers are very pendant, hanging nearly vertically down.

While I've always appreciated lilies in the garden for much of my 45+ years of gardening life, I only recently -in the past 10 years or so,, began seriously investing in lilies as a statement plant. What I mean is, now I buy a dozen or more bulbs every summer (as this is the time to order lilies from the few specialty lily nurseries in North America)  and plant them in the late autumn once they are dug and delivered.

I am attracted to downward facing lilies (rather than upward facing), and Asiatic lilies like this come in all three ways: Downward facing, outward facing and upward facing. 'Ariadne' is a downward facing one, and it looks like Japanese lanterns in the evening garden.

A vase of trumpets and Orienpets on our windowsill - yes, the fragrance is almost too strong to take but I tolerate it for as long as possible as I do love that Noxema-Toothpasty scent. It reminds me of hot and humid summer nights.

Lilies add immense value to a garden especially if they are massed together in a bed or as a large clump. I think most of us start by adding a bulb or three to a flower border, which is fine but the truly spectacular show comes when one plants a dozen or more in a space. Then the show becomes more like an incrediblly beautiful shrub. Thinking of lilies in this way, makes them even more useful. 

I like to plant taller, mid and late season varieties amongst the hydrangeas where they seem to thrive with their feet shady and cool, but their tall stems tower up 6-8 feet tall. Not all lilies are tall of course, but I tend to favor tall mid to late season trumpets, Orientals and Orientpets (crosses between the two divisions).

A couple of newer orienpets a year old just begining to grow into larger plants in my new border. 

While the dreaded Red Lily Beetle (Lilioceris lilii) plagues many of us with lilies in the northeastern US, it has yet to cross the entire country (an import from the UK), it looks like a lovely lady bug, but is devastating to nearly all lilies especially early in the season. Here in central Massachusetts, some of us are noticing a decline in Lily Beetle, but I';ve been assured that some neighbors still suffer with it. Picking them off like Japanese Beetles and placing them in a jar of soapy water seems to be the only trick to keep them at bay, but I am hedging my bets that our low population recently might have something to do with parasitic wasps being tested by researchers from the University of Rhode Island.

Martagon lilies are different than most other garden lilies in that they have thick, waxy petals and foliage that appears in whorls around the stem like stacked umbrellas. It's a bit more fussy in that it demands excellent drainage yet moisture, and grows best where nights are cool. In our garden it seems to be a favorite of the Red Lily Beetle, but with some prudent hand-picking in spring, we seem to be holding our ground. 

So many gardeners romance about their earliest memories of lilies -  those we often called 'tiger lilies'. While many use the name 'tiger lily' for the tall, black spotted orange blossoms with petals that curl backwards, some use the same common name for the common, orange roadside daylilly (Hemerocallis fulva), also an Asiatic import that has run rampant across much of temperate North America. Technically (or, botanically speaking) the true 'tiger lily' is Lilium lancifolium (once L. tigrinum), although just to confust things a bit more - there are plenty of orange lilies with black spots both native and non- native to North America in our gardens and woodlands. Generally speaks, it's Lilium lancifolium though that we all should be referring to as 'Tiger Lilies'. They are easy to identify from others as they form small, shiny black bulbils on each leaf (tiny bulbs), that  help the plant form large colonies.

'Fusion' is a newer introduction - a cross between two species: The common easter lily L. longiflorum and the much more challenging California native L. pardalinum.  I planted 8 bulbs 2 years ago and some are just beginning to emerge with more than a single bud per stem. It takes time for these, I think, to get established but it didnt help that our contractor trampled them while pruning the hedges.

Lilies fill a gap in the border. That time in mid-July until early August when the Dahlias and late summer bloomers take over. This also happens to be the best time to order lilies as they are shipped in late autumn. LIke all good things, the best ones sell out early so check often to see if new varieties are posted and order imediately. Martagons and Trumpets seem to go first, while the newer Orienpets also sell out quickly.

I often forget to order lilies until it is too late, which for the varieties most in demand can be as early as August, but generally speaking most lily nurseries have great varieties available right up until planting time. It's hard to point out a 'bad' lily however, for they add such value to any garden. Some growers post weekly specials near the end of the season, I like to look out for giant grower's bulbs (bulbs that are too large to offer at the regular price), as these can produce instant results like an 7 foot stalk with a couple of dozen flowers. These get posted late in the season sometime once bulbs are dug. I hate sharing my secrets, but there - I did. You're welcome.

A row of Orienpets at our local Lily Show at Tower Hill Botanic Garden a couple of years ago. Bring a notebook or photograph the variety name with your phone to make a wish-list, as a lily show is the best place to see the latest varieties or the most outstanding classics.

The Asiatic lilies (not to be confused with the Oriental lilies) are generally earlier blooming, hve upright flowers and typically have spots and a warmer color palette like brilliant orange, yellow, white and pink. They also tend to multiply more quickly than other lilies like Oriental, Trumpets or Orienpets which generally just have a bulb that gets bigger with each season, without division. A clump of orange Asiatics (with some varieties) can form a large statement clump in just a few years while a 5-8 year old trumpet or Orienpet that may have just a pair of blossoms on it the first season, may mature to an 6-8 foot stem not unlike a tree with 30 or more flowers on it.

If you can afford it (lilies are not that expensive) order a dozen or more bulbs of each variety. This is how one can create a great show in the garden and a larger clump is less likely to get trampled in spring. Also, a few may not survive so it's like an insurance plant to plant more.

A large specimen-sized bulb with two spikes emerging. This arrived last November and just in time, as our soil froze solid a week after planting.

A large clump of 'African Queen' strain, a strain of orange trumpet lilies similar to the antique strains once available that were planted last year just starting to mature. It will take a few years for these to reach full size, but once they do, each stem could be an inch in diameter and every plant could carry 20 or more blossoms. This is when lilies become real standouts in a garden.

These non-dividing bulbs I like to invest in and plant a dozen or two or three to make a spectacular statement in a border. Bulbs are often inexpensive (4-6 dollars each) so the investment isn't as bad as one may think. A dozen bulbs of these long-lived lilies can cost about the same price as a nice hydrangea from the nursery, but put on a show that few could ever imagine.

In the US and North America there are just a few specialty nurseries that only grow lilies or at least, focus on them. Most also breed lilies and I highly recommend starting with these sources as you'll get the newest varieties and often, the best. I should mention that while the term 'lily' is often used for many plants, "true lilies' are within the genus Lilium (while daylilies are not lilies at all, but are Hemerocallis - and there are plenty of specialty nurseries who breed and sell daylilies, I highly recommend supporting them too). The two live well together, and they both bloom around the same time of year.

For true lilies, the list is short in North America. The Lily Garden and B&D Lilies both in Washington state, The Lily Nook in Canada are my go-to sources for interesting lilies bred by breeders that are generally not available anywhere else or commercially. The way the bulb business works is much like the commercial perennial business, a few varieties are chosen that can propagate quickly and can ship well, as well as perform in the garden, and it is these varieties that eventually make it to Holland or other countries where they are multiplied (either through tissue culture or another method) to produce millions of bulbs either for the cut flower businesses or for distribution via the big Dutch growers. These are the few varieties that we find at most mail-order businesses and at nurseries, as well as at Home Depot or Lowes. The varieties arent bad, but they do tend to be more common, and older varieties.

A note on Tiger Lilies (L. lancifolium) , perhaps the easiest lily to grow as it multiplies quickly and can almost become invasive - for nostalgia's sake along, I grow a plot but keep it separate from my other lilies because there they can spread and not become a nuisance. Many people also call the "wild" orange daylily that often grown naturalized along roadsides in New England the Tiger lily, but again, it's a Hemerocallis species. Also, rather invasive and hard to get rid of if introduced into a garden setting.

I suggest learning as much about lilies (true lilies) as you can (I describe each of the divisions or different types of lilies) in my new book Mastering the Art of Flower Gardening (link on the right!), but it's not hard to learn the differences yourself. Joining a local Lily Society will help tremendously as well, or better yet - find a lily show in your area and go see (and smell!) all of the varieties, just don't forget to bring a note pad or your smart phone

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