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True Lilies

Dianne and Gary Westlake


The stars of our garden in mid summer are the true lilies. When they are in bloom, their strong colours jump out at you and they seem to say "Look at me. Aren't I grand!" It makes all the work caring for them worthwhile.

Two introductions of lilies in the 1800's caused English gardeners hearts to flutter. In 1804, Lily lacifolium were brought from China. They, along with other east Asian species, were the ancestors of the Asiatic lilies we enjoy today. The modern day hybrid Oriental lilies, descended from Lily auratum and Lily speciosum which arrived from Japan to England in 1862. Hybridization, which began in earnest in the 1930ís, has resulted in a wide range of colours and forms we enjoy today.

There are a number of varieties of lilies that you can easily grow in Peterborough. The Asiatics are the earliest and flower in June and July. They are 2 to 4 feet tall and have strong stems with 4 to 6 inch leaves radiating out from stem. The flowers are in clusters at the top and face outwards or upwards. They are not usually scented and come in a broad range of colours.

Trumpet lilies have leaves similar to the Asiatics but are much taller. We have some approaching 8 feet this year. The side or down facing flowers are very fragrant and have a distinctive trumpet shape. They bloom about the same time as the Asiatics.

Orientals are very fragrant and a little more finicky. They bloom later than Asiatics and Trumpets (mid July to September). They have huge flowers, wonderful fragrance and come in various shades of white, pink, salmon and crimson. Leaves are wider than the Asiatics and grow on opposite sides of the stem.

Another group of lilies called the Martagons have smaller, down-facing flowers in a variety of colours with whimsical freckles and spots. These don't mind the shade but may need a bit of time to settle in.

Newer varieties are worth trying in the garden and are coming out all the time. These include the Orienpets such as 'Catherine the Great' which are hybrids between Orientals and Trumpets.

Lilies bulbs that are available in the fall or early spring. The bulbs are likely to dry out in storage because they do not have the protective coat found on most other bulbs. Plant them right away but if you must wait a few days, keep the bulbs moist and store in the refrigerator.

Plant 8 to 10 inches deep in well-drained soil. If they get soggy they are likely to rot. Lilies like soil rich in organic matter so we top dress with compost each year. They also like mulch to keep the surface cool and weed-free.

Lilies do best when there is continuous moisture in a sunny location (at least 4 hours of sun per day). They also survive quite well in our garden in dappled or partial shade where they bloom but not as much as in the sun.

Most lily bulbs have small scales that can be removed as long as you include a piece of the basal plate to form new plants. This is a good way to reproduce lilies, especially if you have paid dearly for a special one. Choose a plump bulb. After you peel off no more than one quarter of the scales, discard any bad ones and allow the rest to dry indoors for 2 days. We plant these about an inch deep. Similarly, if you are digging up bulbs, you rarely get all of the smaller plants so expect to have lilies in the old spot. Orientals are harder to scale than Asiatics.

If you are going to use lilies indoors as cut flowers, be careful of the pollen because it stains. Some people prefer to cut off the anthers.

Once you get the right conditions, lilies would just about look after themselves if it were not for the dreaded beetle. A bright red beetle that feeds on lilies and fritillaria that needs to be controlled or you will end up with leafless sticks where your lilies used to be. The lily leaf beetle looks like a stretch-limo ladybug without the spots. Its young are disgusting. They are found on the underside of the leaves swimming in their own black excrement. If we find these, we just pick off the leaf and destroy it. The best way to control the adults is to squish them. Very early in the year, they may be found in the mulch and this is the best time to get them because every one you catch reduces the population later in the year significantly. If you inspect your plants and squish these varmints as often as you can, daily if possible, you will be rewarded with beautiful lilies.