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Lovely Lilies

Master gardener Paul James talks to lily expert Bob Miller for the lowdown on lilies.

Smith River, California, is an area known for its scenic beauty, but this picturesque place holds another distinction — it's the Easter lily (figure A) capital of the world. Some 12 million of these springtime beauties are grown in Smith River every year.

"Our average winter temperature is about 50 degrees and our average summer temperature is about 55 and that seems strange," says lily expert Bob Miller. "But we get a lot of summer fog and a very moderating influence from the ocean." But, according to Miller, you don't have to live in this area to be able to grow beautiful lilies. Gardeners in colder climates simply need to give nature a helping hand. Easter lilies can be grown through the mid-Atlantic states and coastal areas if they are planted in well-draining soil and properly mulched.

But before you can grow beautiful lilies, you have to choose the right plants. "When you're buying a potted Easter lily in the store, you should look for several things," says Miller. "One thing we like to point out is green foliage all the way down to the decoration." If you buy a plant with open blooms, Miller suggests pulling off the tip of the anthers inside the flower (figure B). The anthers contain pollen which can spill and stain the flowers yellow. Another added benefit of removing the anthers is that the flowers last longer. After Easter, it's time to plant your lily.

Miller suggests that the trick to getting Easter lilies to survive in the home garden is to remove all the flowers once you're done enjoying them in the house. Then, as soon as possible, take your lilies outside and plant them in the ground to preserve as much of the green foliage as possible. It's not necessary to break up a lily's root ball before planting it in rich, well-drained soil. Miller buries it two inches deeper than it was originally planted in the pot to help insulate the bulb underground during the winter months. When the cold temperatures arrive, give the lily an organic blanket of mulch made from a light, fiber material that won't packed together easily.

Lilies don't produce blossoms overnight. In fact, the whole process from bulb to blooming beauty takes Miller a laborious three years. First, he begins with a lily scale which forms a bulblet. This new growth is called a scalet (figure C). The scalet grows for approximately one year before it becomes a yearling. The yearling grows another year and becomes a commercial bulb.

If you'd like a garden full of Easter joy, growing lily bulbs is almost as easy as growing garlic bulbs.

"Easter lilies are really easy for the home gardener to propagate," says Miller.

  • Break off the scales from a mature bulb (figure D) in late August or September (when the bulb scales are full of carbohydrates that have been manufactured by the leaves).

  • Place the scales on a bed of light, well-draining vermiculite (figure E) and top them with one inch of the planting medium. Cover the tray with plastic and set it in a cool, dark place for six weeks.

  • Move the tray to the light, and after a while, the green tops will emerge. In three or four months, those scales can be lifted and planted in the spring.

    Lilies forced in the greenhouse are carefully timed to bloom at Easter time. However, the flowering cycle occurs on a much less rigid schedule in a garden. "Lilies in nature will bloom normally in June or July depending on the climate," says Miller.

    Speaking of lilies, the Asiatic hybrid lily (figure F), is the lily that gardeners will most often be growing in their garden beds. This hardy and distinctive lily is perfect for the beginner gardeners. Asiatic hybrid lilies grow faster, flower earlier and are available in more colors than many other lilies.

    Another terrific lily is the LA hybrid (figure G). "The LA hybrid lily takes its name from Lilium longiflorum — the Easter lily and the Asiatic lily," says Miller.

    So whether it's an Asiatic, Easter or LA, the lily is an excellent way to herald in the spring season. One word of caution to cat owners; though. If your cat eats any part of the plant, it could cause severe kidney damage. So either put the plant somewhere the cat can't reach, or consider safer plant alternatives.

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