Lilium regale, front view
I’ll admit it.
I’ve bought lilies in the bag, on impulse. Just going by their looks, in the shallowest sort of relationship. But I’m also an eternal seeker after something more, something…it’s elusive, but I know it when I see it.
I tend to look among heirloom and species bulbs for that elusive something. Older bulbs were bred for gardeners, not the cut-flower trade. What that means for us is that heirloom bulbs are easier to grow into flower and tend to last better in the garden.
Lilium regale, back view
Species lilies can be trickier, as most are very particular about where they live, but some are forgiving, and others can be patiently cultivated in woodland settings. The best places to find these bulbs are the gardens and catalogues of people who are as nuts about bulbs as I am. The breeders, the preservers, the people who see something in the wild and have the patience to cultivate it from seed.
You can find good species and heirloom lilies in bigger catalogues, such as the venerable Scheepers/ Van Engelen listings (Scheepers sells small amounts for home gardeners; Van Engelen sells larger, discounted quantities for professionals, and people like me who just don’t know when to stop). In lilies, breeding seems to make older varieties obsolete sooner than in bulbs such as daffodils and tulips, so you don’t see many hybrid lilies that are more than about 30 years old in the mainstream catalogues. But Scheepers has several species varieties, including the incredibly wonderful Lilium regale and Lilium regale album, trumpets that will exhale scent on your midsummer garden and, if you’re lucky, establish themselves in a glorious perennial clump.
‘Mrs R.O. Backhouse’, heirloom lily supreme. “Backhouse” is pronounced like the wine god, Bachhus.
Brent and Becky’s Bulbs offers an enormous selection of hybrid lilies, but also includes some old favorites, such as ‘Golden Splendor’ , a Jan de Graaf hybrid which has itself been used extensively in breeding due to its beauty and good character. (Or at least they did have ‘Golden Splendor’; I just looked at their newly-issued fall catalogue and can’t find it. Never mind, they have tons of other wonderful heirloom bulbs). Brent and Becky’s has the largest lily selection I’ve seen in a regular bulb catalogue, including an excellent species lily section, with over a dozen offerings. You can always count on their bulbs to be good quality, unmarred and bursting with life. I often think Brent and Becky are doing a darn good job keeping lilies alive in US gardens, even though they are supposed to be daffodil specialists.
For heirlooms, there’s always Old House Gardens, a repository of many fine heirloom and species varieties. Of course, as always in the botanical world, there’s considerable arguing over which is which. For instance, ‘Citronella’, a Jan de Graaf hybrid, is often listed as a species lily in other, less knowledgeable catalogues, with ‘Citronella’ acting as the name of the species selection. Citronella is actually a cross between Lilium davidii var. unicolor and Lilium amabile var. luteum.
The lovely ‘Citronella’. Not fragrant, but I let it in my garden anyway.
‘Black Beauty’ (from 1957) is another lily that looks as if it should be a species – but it isn’t, although it’s often sold as one by less-knowledgeable vendors. ‘Black Beauty’ is a hybrid of Lilium speciosum and Lilium henryi, made by Leslie Woodriff.
One of my personal favorites, ‘African Queen‘(1958) is also listed. I got my own ‘African Queen’ bulbs there. I also tried their version of Lilium formosanum (a species lily from Taiwan).
Elegant, fragrant ‘African Queen’
While the prices at Old House Gardens aren’t as cheap as some places, you get value for the money . The lavishly floriferous quality, and the huge, honking size of their bulbs – prove that Scott Kunst and company are dyed-in-the-wool bulbomaniacs. If the mouthwatering descriptions of about twenty lilies hasn’t already proved that.
The Lily Garden is a site (and catalogue) offered by someone who suffers the most serious condition of plant mania: a breeder. And not just any breeder, but Judith Freeman, whose ‘Silk Road’ is only the latest of her lilies to make the big time. Her ‘Tiger Babies’ lilies, a delicious confection of fragrant peach tigerlily lookalikes, has been on my list of desired ones for some time. Maybe you think I’m getting off the subject, talking about newer lilies. But ‘Tiger Babies‘, while relatively new, have now been around for thirty years, as Freeman’s site informs us (and she should know).
If many of Freeman’s progeny have become classics in the lily world, that’s not be so surprising: Freeman did her apprenticeship under Jan de Graaf in Oregon, and was once married to Ed McRae, another famous lily breeder. That makes her a sort of royalty in the lily-breeding world. She’s still at it, and offers us the benefit of her labors, as well as cultural instructions (wouldn’t you rather get these from someone who’s actually been out in the field growing lilies for a long time?), lists of lily bloom times, plus some species offerings at reasonable prices. She even includes lilies that are easy from seed, a useful list for some of us who have fruitlessly tried with lily seeds over and over.
Telos Rare Bulbs is a site that specializes in species (which I always think of as the ultimate in an heirloom plant). They don’t have a large selection of lilies on their page of native bulbs from the Western USA – but they have two native lilies I have never seen offered in bulb form and have not been able to grow from seed. They have a lot of other native bulbs, too – both to the Western US, and to South America and South Africa. You’ll find a lot of selections here that you won’t see anywhere else.
Some of these catalogues offer spring-planted bulbs, and some fall-planted lily bulbs. Some offer both. Which is best? I suspect that has to do with where you live. For those who live in extreme climates or just want to get their bulbs in for that instant satisfaction, spring-planted bulbs seem to work well. But while I have spring-planted lily bulbs and had it turn out well (it was one of those shallow relationships I was talking about, with Nerone lily), I find that more often, my spring-planted lilies are stunted and tortured-looking. A fall and winter of establishing their roots and getting some good nutrition really works for them. Perhaps for some of you in other climates, it works differently?
And perhaps, as a contribution to the public weal, you can contribute other good lily sources? I’d especially like to hear from people in other countries (although I’m always anxious to fuel my passion with more lily sources for my own use). When I was searching around for lily sites, I found myself becoming somewhat morose that I wasn’t living in Australia or New Zealand. They have some good-looking lily sites.