A follow-up to the previous post (with a downloadable book) by E. H. Wilson containing information on lilies; Wilson was the plant hunter who introduced the beautiful and amenable Regal Lily (L. regale) in 1915.

The full book, Aristocrats Of The Garden, can be downloaded here.

Jim Thorleifson





Common errors of belief in the requirements of These superb flowers a dozen species that are Really hardy

In a recipe for jugged hare some one once made the sage remark “First catch your hare!” This aphorism is sound, and apropos of growing Lilies it may be altered to “First secure healthy bulbs.” In the matter of the hare every epicure cannot go forth with dog and gun and hunt his game; neither can every lover of the Lily journey forth to distant regions and dig a stock of bulbs. Both, perforce, must resort to the dealer and depend upon his knowledge and honesty, or on their own judgment.

As one who has hunted the Lily on cliff and dale, on mountain-slope and alpine moorland, and through woodland and swamp in many remote parts of China and the Thibetan borderland, and from the extreme south of Japan northward through that pretty country to Saghalien and the lonely shores of the Okhotsk Sea, I propose here to consider, cursorily, how Lilies grow. No class of herbs is more widely known or more highly appreciated; on no class of plants is more money annually spent (I had almost written wasted); and with no class of flowers do amateurs succeed less. The Lily growers who have achieved outstanding success can be counted on one’s fingers, and nurserymen have failed as completely as have amateurs.

Some species, like the Tiger Lily (L. tigrinum,) succeed almost everywhere and often under the most unfavorable conditions. Others, like the Madonna Lily (L. candidum), thrive amazingly in unexpected places where they receive no thought or attention. The Madonna Lily is the glory and pride of many a cottager’s garden in the south of England yet often on the “squire’s estate” near by neither skill nor care can induce it to happily make itself at home. David Harum opined that “a reasonable amount of fleas is good for a dog they keep him from brooding on being a dog.” How far the Lily enthusiast can apply this philosophy to his own particular troubles depends upon the individual and is very much a moot point.

However, a good many of these troubles are directly or indirectly of his own seeking although he may be quite unconscious of the fact. It would be absurdly fallacious to contend that with knowledge and care every Lily-lover can successfully cultivate any kind of Lily that pleased his fancy, but knowledge and care will teach what particular kinds can successfully be grown and in time convince the enthusiast that he must be content with a limited number. Such knowledge may be of slow growth and painfully acquired but such we value most.

Now, in passing, let us devote a few moments to considering the noblest of all the Lilies L. auratum, the “Golden-rayed Lily of Japan.” How many millions of bulbs of this Lily have been imported; how many thousands of purchasers have been disappointed; how many letters protesting, or seeking advice, have been penned? This wonderful Lily flowered first in this country in 1862, in the garden of Francis Parkman, the historian, at Jamaica Plain, Mass., having been received from Japan through Mr. F. Gordon Dexter. In July, 1862, it flowered in England, for the first time in Europe, with Messrs. Veitch, from bulbs sent from Japan by their collector, John Gould Veitch.

The Japanese eat the bulbs of Lilium auratum and several other species, but for its beauty they do not esteem it or any other true Lily – they never did. But in due time, after intercourse was established between Japan and western nations, largely through the vigorous action in 1853-54, of Commodore Perry of the U. S. Navy, the Japanese discovered that Lily bulbs could be sold for much money, so they began ransacking their country in quest of these bulbs. In those early days we are told the Yama-juri, or Mountain Lily (L. auratum), grew abundantly in the volcanic ash and detritus which form the slopes of sacred and sublime Mount Fuji. To-day it still grows there but in decreasing numbers; yet it is even now the most common wild Lily in Japan. In the volcanic deposits throughout the province of Idzu it is abundant and near by on the small island of Oshima, whose central part is an ever active volcano, grows in quantity the broad-leaved auratum (L. auratum, var. platyphyllum).

For western markets the dealers demand Lily bulbs of certain sizes. After a few years the Japanese discovered that the supply of wild bulbs meeting the necessary requirements was virtually exhausted, but they quickly found that in rich, moist farm land, in one or at most two years, they could grow the small bulbs culled from the mountain slopes and moorlands into large saleable bulbs and, incidentally, that the larger the bulb the higher its market value. Then began in Japan the growing of Lily bulbs for the western markets and here commenced the troubles of would-be cultivators in the Occident of Lilium auratum. In books on Lilies one reads “Lilium auratum grows in porous, open soil largely composed of volcanic detritus overlaid by a deep carpet of woodland soil.” The first part of this statement is true but the “deep carpet of woodland soil” is pure fiction.

In Japan there is much poor and hungry soil but none more so than the slopes of august Fuji and the volcanic deposits of the Idzu province. Around Matsushima, a beauty spot in northern Japan, I saw this Lily wild in quantity growing among coarse grass and shrubs on low hills and hillocks of pure, gray sandstone. In western Japan, in the province of Uzen, I also met with it growing wild on gravelly banks and hillsides among small shrubs and coarse grasses. It is the open, porous soil, and not the rich humus, that this Lily luxuriates in. Leafsoil it loves in common with all Lilies, but it wants no unaerated acid peat and it loathes raw nitrogenous manures. True, bulbs transferred from their natural haunts to fields and cultivated like potatoes increase rapidly in size but the constitution of the plant is undermined and it becomes a prey to fungoid diseases.

There is a minimum size to every kind of Lily bulb below which it cannot produce strong, flowering stems. This size varies according to the particular species, but in every case a firm, solid bulb of moderate size will be found more healthy and will give results more satisfactory than a large, loose, and flabby bulb. Purchasers who make mere size their standard of value often defeat the object they have most closely in view. I examined some bulbs of the wild L. auratum and found them only about a couple of inches in diameter though they bore heads of from three to six flowers and, also, were absolutely free of any sign of disease. Later, I asked one of the largest and perhaps the best-informed Japanese grower of Lilies why he did not dig and sell these wild bulbs since they were so healthy and vigorous. With a smile he answered: “My dear sir, I tried it once and found that neither in Europe nor America could a purchaser be found for bulbs so small!”

Of the genus Lilium, to which all true Lilies belong, about eighty species are known. All are confined to the waste places of the Northern Hemisphere and more than half of them are indigenous in China and Japan. The genus ranges through the temperate and subtropic regions from eastern North America to California and through eastern Asia, the Himalayas, and Siberia to the extreme limits of western Europe. It is absent from the plains of the middle west of North America and from central Asia, and there are other considerable gaps in the field of distribution. Two species are found within and confined to the tropics, viz., L. philippinense in the Philippine Islands, and L. neilgherrense on the Neilgherry Hills in southern India. In this wide domain species of Lilium are found under diverse conditions and a moment’s reflection should convince us of the futility of attempting to cultivate in any one garden all the species obtainable. Botanists, chiefly on the shape of the flowers, divide Lilies into five groups, viz. –

I. Flowers strongly recurved and suggestive of a Turk’s cap, a familiar example being the Tiger Lily (L. tigrinum).

II. Flowers large and funnel-shaped as in the common Easter Lily (L. longiflorum).

III. Flowers like a saucer or shallow basin as in the Golden-rayed Lily of Japan (L. auratum).

IV. Flowers erect as in the Umbellate Lily (L. umbellatum).

V. Leaves broad and heart-shaped as in the Giant Lily (L. giganteum).

For horticultural purposes a much more simple classification may be invoked. For gardens in cool temperate regions Lilies may be divided into two broad groups:

(A.) Hardy Lilies of which L. tigrinum, L. regale, and L. Henryi may serve as examples.

(B.) Not Hardy, of which may be cited L. longiflorum, L. sulphureum, and L. nepalense.

Again, they may be divided into Swamp Lilies which would include nearly all the American species, and Dry-land Lilies which would include most of the species of China and Japan. With almost equal propriety these groups might be styled humus-loving and loam-loving respectively.

Also, we might divide Lilies into shade-loving kinds, as for example, L. giganteum, and sun-loving such as L. regale. But, not to waste time it may be laid down as a law that in the average garden situated in the temperate parts of North America, only such species of Lily as are perfectly hardy withstand sun, and, call for moderately dry land, have any chance of becoming successful denizens. For such gardens swamp Lilies, woodland Lilies, and alpine Lilies, with a few exceptions, may be ruled out entirely.

Most species of Lilies detest lime; to many it is a deadly poison; to none, so far as we know, is lime essential; but some, like L. candidum, L. martagon, and L. testaceum, are apparently indifferent to its presence in the soil.

All Lilies demand good drainage. When one thinks of swamp Lilies this statement may sound unscientific. But dig up a few of these Lilies and note carefully the exact conditions under which they grow. It will be found that the bulb rests on a stone or a piece of rock, or in a tuft of firm sod, or nestles in gritty sand. The roots are in wet mud or may even hang free in the water; but the bulb is so placed that water cannot stagnate immediately under and around it, and in winter it is fairly dry.

A few swamp Lilies like the native L. superbum and the Panther Lily (L. pardalinum) of California may be grown without difficulty among Rhododendrons ; but for those requiring more moisture, if their culture be attempted, it is a good plan to invert a flower-pot at the requisite depth, place the bulb on the upturned base and surround it with silver- or gritty river-sand.

Sun-loving Lilies, although the upper part of their stems are fully exposed and their blossoms flaunt in the sun, really require a certain amount of protection from the direct rays in the early stages of their growth. Lilies are not desert plants, and the most sun loving among them are never found in areas where no other plant grows. True, some of them are denizens of semi-arid regions but they are ever associated with grasses or twiggy shrubs, among and through which their young shoots are upthrust and which break the sun’s direct rays. Some species like the Regal Lily (L. regale, better known under the erroneous name of L. myriophyllum), can withstand much desiccation but these in a natural state have their foil of herbs and scrub.

Journey in thought with me, for a moment or two, westward until “west” becomes “east” although we still chase the setting sun. Across this continent, across that broad ocean misnamed “Pacific,” to Shanghai, the gate of Far Cathay; onward and westward up the mighty Yangtsze River for eighteen hundred miles, then northward, up its tributary the Min, some two hundred and fifty miles to the confines of mysterious Thibet; to that little-known hinterland which separates China proper from the hierarchy of Lhassa; to a wild and mountainous country peopled mainly by strange tribesfolk of unknown origin; to a land where Lamaism, Buddhism, and Phallism strive for mastery of men’s souls; to a region where mighty empires meet. There in narrow, semi-arid valleys down which thunder torrents, and encompassed by mountains composed of mudshales and granites whose peaks are clothed with snow eternal, the Regal Lily has its home. In summer the heat is terrific, in winter the cold is intense, and at all seasons these valleys are subject to sudden and violent windstorms against which neither man nor beast can make headway. There, in June, by the wayside, in rock-crevices by the torrent’s edge, and high up on the mountainside and precipice this Lily in full bloom greets the weary wayfarer. Not in twos and threes; but in hundreds, in thousands, aye, in tens of thousands. Its slender stems, each two to four feet tall, flexible and tense as steel, overtopping the coarse grass and scrub and crowned with one to several large, funnel-shaped flowers more or less wine- colored without, pure white and lustrous on the face, clear canary-yellow within the tube and each stamen tipped with a golden anther. The air in the cool of the morning and in the evening is laden with soft, delicious perfume exhaled from each bloom. For a brief season this lonely, semi-desert region is transformed by this Lily into a veritable fairyland.

Since we have, figuratively, traveled so far to see one Lily in its home surroundings, let us in the same manner journey a hundred miles or so farther and to the southwest, and there, in valleys clothed with coarse grasses and low shrubs and under conditions but little less severe than the preceding and in equal abundance, we find Mrs. Charles S. Sargent’s Lily (L. Sargentiae) reigning supreme. Westward some few miles and on the margin of shrubberies at eight thousand feet above sea level and on the very edge of the Thibetan grasslands grows Mrs. Bayard Thayer’s Lily (L. Thayerae). There are other Lilies which we have not time to consider but on our homeward journey let us pause for a moment in the geographical heart of China, in the region of the famous Yangtsze Gorges, and visit the haunt of the Orange-flowered Speciosum (L. Henryi). Inland a few miles from the riverine city of Ichang, on formations of conglomerate and hard carboniferous limestones, at the edge of woods and among tall shrubs we find here a few and there many of Henry’s charming Lily.

From these distant regions came the bulbs of these Lilies, and I count it a privilege to have been the fortunate discoverer of two, the introducer of three, and the medium through which the fourth (L. Henryi) first became common in cultivation. I could tell of others equally beautiful were any good purpose to be served and I mention these four not for personal reasons but to direct attention to the conditions under which they grow wild and to emphasize that, though sun-loving and capable of withstanding much desiccation both from the action of sun and frost, they grow naturally among protective herbs and shrubs. These herbs and shrubs afford protection in two ways: in spring they screen from the sun’s direct rays the young flower-stem of the Lily after it emerges from mother earth; in the autumn the fallen leaves of the shrubs and the dying culms of the herbs form a protective mulch which as it decays becomes a nourishing food.

This brief sketch of the conditions under which certain Lilies grow wild enables us to deduce certain facts of cultural importance. In the first place, Lilies should be planted among Ferns, or dwarf shrubs such, for example, as Lavender, wild Roses, Deutzias, Indigoferas, Lespedezas, Comptonia, Vacciniums, Ericas, Calluna, native Azaleas, Rhododendrons and, where climate admits, shrubby Veronicas and Olearias.

Planting Lilies among shrubs is no new idea; twenty-five years or more ago it came into vogue. Some one achieved great success through planting Lilies among Rhododendrons and the cry went forth that this was the solution of the Lily grower’s troubles – plant Lilies among Rhododendrons! It is quite true that a number of species like L. pardalinum, L. superbum, L. speciosum, L. Hansonii (and I have also seen L. auratum) do well under such conditions. Also it is true that Rhododendrons require peat and here is the rub. All Lilies love leafsoil but a great many detest peat. I have seen L. Henryi grow ten feet tall in loam and leafsoil and continue to thrive for many years. I have seen this Lily disappear completely in two seasons when planted in pure peat. Plant Lilies among shrubs, but let the class of shrubs depend upon whether the particular species of Lily loves loam or humus. For my own part I would keep away from peat except for swamp Lilies and use fibrous loam, sand, and leafsoil, the latter in increasing proportion as to species that grow naturally in fairly open country, thickets, or woods.

Another and very obvious deduction is the importance of mulching. In every garden much ground is bare of vegetation and fully exposed to the sun and elements. In spring, as the frost disappears, an inspection will show that this ground is fissured and furrowed in many directions and any kind of bulb which had been planted in such bare soil is often more or less exposed. This may be avoided and much benefit bestowed on all bulbs by covering them in autumn with a mulch of rotted leaves or exhausted manure.

Strictly speaking, a bulb is a bud just as much so as the winter-bud of a Hickory or Horsechestnut, but with this difference: its scales are fleshy storehouses of starch and other food reserves instead of merely dry and chaffy protective scales, and roots are emitted from the base. These basal roots anchor the bulb and supply it with water and certain food salts. If we examine Lilies like L. Henryi, L. auratum, and L. regale we find that the underground part of the flowering stem bears masses of roots. These help to feed the growing stem and prevent undue exhaustion of the bulb. After flowering this root system assists in the rehabilitation of the bulb. Roots emitted from the stem above the ground quickly perish. An appreciation of these facts shows the necessity of deep planting. The bulbs of all stem-rooting Lilies (and the majority are such) should be planted twice their own depth down. That is to say, a bulb three inches high should have six inches of soil covering it and so on in proportion. The importance of deep planting is not sufficiently understood, but go and dig up a few Lily bulbs from their native haunts and it will be found they are usually deeper down than twice their height.

The majority of Lilies are at rest, or nearly so, during the winter months but all kinds benefit from planting as early in the fall as is possible.

The Madonna Lily (L. candidum) is an exception in several ways. In the first place, it resents moving. When this has to be done it should be undertaken not later than six weeks after flowering as the resting period of this Lily is unusually short. Again, it should be noted that this Lily has a mass of broad basal leaves independent of the flowering stem and it is these leaves with the assistance of the roots that build up the bulb. This Lily should have the top of its bulb only just covered with soil. It prefers rather stiff loam in a situation fully exposed to the sun but it will grow in dry and hungry limestone soils. Bulbs grown in the south of England are the best though the majority of dealers still insist that French-grown bulbs are superior.

From this cursory consideration of the conditions in which Lilies grow wild in various parts of the world a few facts of cardinal importance to the Lily lover may be deduced. In the first place, since Lilies inhabit the waste places of the Northern Hemisphere it is obvious that they are unaccustomed to rich food. For this reason even stable manure should not be used in their culture and artificial fertilizers are absolutely inimical. All Lilies grow naturally in places where each autumn they receive a mulch of fallen leaves. Leafsoil and not manure is the requisite essential. Nearly all grow in well-drained situations and good drainage is absolutely necessary to ensure success. Lilies of the swamp, woodland, and alpine meadow are with rare exceptions difficult to cultivate. Those which grow among shrubs and herbs more or less exposed to the sun are less exacting and in this class is found the majority of the sorts amenable to cultivation in ordinary gardens.

It is not possible to lay down any hard and fast rules, but good, sound bulbs and a common-sense attention to a few elementary details are the essentials. Several kinds of Lilies present no more difficulties under cultivation than do Narcissi and Tulips; nevertheless in most gardens to maintain Lilies in good health new soil or removal to a new site is necessary every few years.

The following species will be found to thrive and give satisfaction in any and every garden in temperate climes with the sine qua non that sound bulbs only be planted: L. tigrinum, L. umbellatum, L. Hansonii, L. pardalinum, L. superbum, L. candidum, L. croceum, L. Henryi, L. regale, L. Sargentiae, L. auratum, L. speciosum, L. testaceum, and L. Thayerae.