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Lily Roundup


Mrs. R.O. Backhouse, one of the many lilies I’m not mentioning in this roundup. Except in absentia: it was one of my usually-reliable lilies that didn’t flower this year.

I just got in my annual shipment of bulbs.

I mean, I just got in my annual three shipments of bulbs. My house is full of bulbs; my refrigerator is full of bulbs. And I’m currently trying to figure out how to rearrange the food so I can fit in more bulbs, because heaven knows it’s going to be awhile before they all get planted.

I do a kind of triage with bulb planting. Lilies go first, because lilies are never really dormant, like other bulbs. They’re always in one stage or another of growing.

For those who are interested in my lily experiments earlier in the season, here’s what I have to report: not much. I have seen sign of only one of the four species lilies I planted: Lilium longiflorum gave me about two feet (70 cm) of reasonably healthy stem. Not enthusiastic, but not sickly. The others, Lilium nepalense, L. wallachianum, and L. auratum,  all sank without a trace.

There are a lot of possible reasons for this. Most lilies seem to like a moist but well-drained soil, something that’s not easy for me to achieve in my climate and in the containers I put lilies in. Also, mine is a climate where lilies really do better planted in the fall. It’s hard for spring-planted lilies to get established, because the hot, dry weather comes along before they really have a chance. Yes, I water, but the plants know: they feel the dry air, and the heat, and they know the difference between rain and artificial irrigations. Their root systems just don’t get the same chance.

In cold-winter climates, it seems to be better to spring-plant lilies. (Except madonna lilies (Lilium candidum), which always need late-summer planting.) The longer, moister spring may be a better way for them to establish themselves than the short and brutal falls.

I’m backed up in these ideas by Edward Austin McRae, which gives me a good, smug feeling: I had the same insight as a famous lily expert. Of course, his is a bit more exact.

“Lily bulbs planted [in fall] form basal or contractile roots almost immediately when the soil temperature and moisture level are satisfactory…Spring planting times vary with climate and soil conditions. The most important difference between fall and spring planting is that in the latter the bulbs have been in cold storage during the winter months, where they have been conditioned to sprout and grow…a very early spell of bad weather (perhaps in early February) can be followed by weeks of inclement weather…bulbs planted under these conditions deteriorate rapidly. ”

In any case, I spring-planted those species lilies because-well, because I have bulbomania. It’s a chronic disease, which seems to have particularly virulent flareups in spring and fall. And this year, I got an especially vicious attack in late spring-not a good time to plant any bulb, except maybe gladiolus and dahlia (which are really corms and tubers, respectively).

It’s not always easy to find species lilies, and when I do, I take what I can get. So it’s possible that bulb quality as well as bulb timing may have contributed to my bad results. To circumvent the bulb quality issue, this fall I decided just to buy a limited number of the plumpest, juiciest, priciest lilies I could, leaning toward the species and the garden-tested.

Another problem with my earlier lily choices may have been the persnicketiness (botanical term) of species bulbs. Species bulbs grow in places where very few other things will-and they make very particular adaptations to do that. After infinite generations of forming theses tastes, they are not always happy to be transported to our gardens, where very different surroundings await them.

Some adapt easily, though, so I leaned toward those when I made my fall choices: Regal Lily (Lilium regale), Lilium speciosum album, Lilium formosanum, and a Jan de Graaff hybrid from about sixty years ago, Citronella lily. Old hybrids that are still around are garden-tested, and I like the wild tiger-lily look of this one. It’s also supposed to be very resilient, music to my ears.

Well, I got those planted, but I also want to figure out what to do with my established lilies that didn’t do much this year. The ‘African Queen’ and ‘Nerone’ were wonderful, but I got a no-show from most of the others, as far as flowers go. So I dug up one batch of lilies that I think have just not been getting enough sun. I need to put them in a place where they’ll thrive and flower. Possibly I also need to give them something in the soil they haven’t been getting.

Another thing I probably haven’t considered enough is air circulation. Lilies don’t like to be jammed up against other plants, apparently. In a small garden such as my own, it’s easy to forget this in trying to fit everything in where I can easily admire it. Some flowers just need space. I can be like that myself. For some lilies, this feeling extends to their very roots: McRae suggests that lilies in containers may even need air circulation under the pots. I may try propping lily pots up on rocks or pot shards, at least during winter rains.

The problem is, I haven’t figured out what kind of lilies these ones I dug up  are. They’re either white tiger lily, pink tiger lily (both hybrids), or Lilium cernuum album,  a kind of blush-white martagon-looking lily. (I do use those infinitely-lasting self-engraving aluminum plant labels, but they don’t come with a doesn’t-get-lost-and-buried guarantee.)

While I’m figuring out if that makes a difference in their cultural requirements, these lilies are living in my refrigerator. They have plenty of company.



Edward Austin McRae, Lilies,  Timber Press, 1998, 2001. Quote pg. 321

Old House Garden lily culture instructions (comes with the lilies)

{ 1 comment… add one }

  • Nancy Bond October 28, 2008, 8:58 pm

    Those lilies are absolutely beautiful, both in color and bloom.

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