Lilies in Favor Again

Master gardener Maureen Gilmer shares tips on growing lilies.

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Outstanding rust-colored anthers stand out in flowers. (Photos courtesy of Maureen Gilmer)

The Chinese believed that lily bulbs came from earthworms that knotted themselves together and were transformed. The lily bulb, with its many thick scales, could suggest a bundle of albino worms, but it far more resembles a giant garlic bulb without the papery wrapping.

Lily bulbs, in fact, were an edible food in Asia before they were an ornamental flower. Asians baked or grated the bulbs into soups as a thickener. And lilies still are used as a medicinal over a large part of the Far East.

The introduction of these ancient species to the West did not begin until the borders of Japan and China finally were opened to plant collectors. British plant hunters sent many of their finds and botanical drawings to Kew Gardens in England. The French Jesuit botanists sent their bulbs and plants back to Jardin des Plantes in Paris.

On moonlit nights, white lilies appear to glow.
Lilies are great accents in flower borders.
Lilies are loved for large flowers and extraordinary color.

Despite its illustrious history of eastern and western cultivation, the lily world fell apart in the early 20th century. A shipment of virus-ridden lilies sent from Asia so afflicted European and American lily populations that the once-popular plants were quickly dropped from cultivation. In fact, the losses caused many companies to close altogether!

Suddenly, nobody wanted to grow these afflicted plants any more. Worse, their ability to easily transport a virus that threatened other vital agricultural crops made them virtual pariahs. Oriental lilies and lilies in general, including even those native to the Mediterranean, all but dropped out of contemporary gardens.

It is said that the lilies that did survive in Britain were those in modest cottage gardens. Although not proven, the conclusion that a housewife often poured her wash water over the dooryard lilies was the key. Apparently the soap acted to control or kill the virus.

Decades later, when lilies bore the sorry reputation of being difficult, uncooperative and rarely successful plant, devoted breeders worked hard to fix the virus problem. Their crosses of the 100 basic species produced countless cultivars. The goal was not just bigger flowers, but more importantly, cultivars that would not succumb to the virus. Now lilies are back, virus free and better than ever.

The new hybrid lilies are divided into a few major categories. Those loosely termed Asiatics are among the most affordable and easiest to grow. They produce large carefree plants that can reach three feet tall in bloom. Hardy to USDA Zone 3, they are rugged enough to remain in the ground all year for a bigger performance each season. However, at the lower end of their hardiness range, they will fare better in ground under a protective layer of winter mulch.

Asiatics are great cut flowers with extra strong stalks. Other lilies root only below the bulb. Asiatics do that, too, but they also root along the developing stalk between the top of the bulb and the surface of the soil. For this reason, Asiatics are planted deeper than other lily types. Additional rooting makes these lily hybrids far more vigorous and resilient.

Asiatic lilies are planted from bare bulbs during the fall or from container-grown plants during spring. They bloom in late spring into summer with up to 50 blooms on a fully mature specimen. Plant your lilies in a well-drained location; they abhor waterlogged ground. Asiatics perform best in full sun or with partial shade during the afternoon.

To get started with Asiatic lilies, check out Brecks Bulbs online at Take a look at collections of different Asiatic varieties with their wide color variation. For bold effects, explore the two tone Lollypop, bright orange Treffer and Nerone red lilies with blossoms up to seven inches across.

Lilies may seem like exotic or difficult plants, but don't let that century-old bad reputation fool you. They've survived the test of time and are back in American gardens to stay.

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of Weekend Gardening on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. For more information, visit or Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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