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Missouri Environment & Garden


David Trinklein
University of Missouri
Division of Plant Sciences
(573) 882-9631

Lily: A Symbol of Life

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

Published: April 3, 2014

white lily flowers

No other flower is associated with the observance of Easter more than the lily. Its beautiful white flowers are symbolic of purity, joy, hope and life. However, lily was cultivated by civilized man long before it became associated with Easter and has symbolic meaning to many different religions. Let’s take a closer look at this very special flower which has enjoyed a unique importance throughout the ages.

The name “lily” is applied chiefly (and correctly) to any member of the genus Lilium. A member of the Liliaceae family, this genus contains over 100 species, all of which are herbaceous perennials that arise from bulbs and produce large, showy flowers. Most are native to temperate regions of the northern hemisphere.

The first mention of lily dates back about 4000 years to a pure white version of the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum). The latter species still is popular among gardeners today, although most modern garden lilies are hybrids of various species. A wide array of artifacts (e.g. jewelry and vases) depicting Madonna lily have been unearthed in ancient cities of Crete, Greece and Mesopotamia.

Ancient Egyptians revered the lily and entombed it with their dead. The Greeks and Romans also treasured it. According to their folklore, Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, was so jealous of the lily that she caused an elongated pistil to grow from its center, thus making it less attractive.

In China, lily was used as a valuable source of food. The latter use probably is what caused it to spread throughout Europe. The Victorian Era saw the discovery of many new types of lilies as European explorers introduced them from the orient.

The lily species used for Easter decoration today is Lilium longifolium, which is believed to have originated in Japan. Writings there date it back to at least the 17th century. Its white, long-trumpeted flowers are spectacular both in form and fragrance. However, this species of lily is not reliably hardy in the Midwest and, if planted outdoors, must be given a protected location if it is to bloom in future years.

As mentioned above, most garden lilies planted today are hybrids that can be classified into one of three different groups: Asiatic hybrids, Aurelian hybrids and Oriental hybrids. The Asiatic hybrids are the earliest flowering of the three. They typically bloom during early summer on strong, erect stems. The flowers of Asiatic hybrids tend to exert themselves more upward than other types, although there are pendulous types as well. They typically achieve a mature height of between 24 and 48 inches.

The Aurelian (trumpet) hybrids are known for their huge trumpet-shaped flowers that tend to be pendulous or nodding in orientation. Aurelian hybrids bloom in July and August and bear flowers that tend to be more fragrant than the Asiatic types. Giants of the lily world, Aurelian hybrids often reach a mature height of 60 inches or more. Because of their tall stature, some sort of support is warranted in order to keep the plants from toppling over.

The Oriental hybrids are the latest to bloom and typically are at their showiest in August. Their colorful and very fragrant flowers are produced on plants that range in height from 24 to 48 inches. The Oriental hybrids are the least tolerant of cold temperatures of three groups and, if grown at our latitude, need winter protection in order to survive. While their somewhat tender nature might limit their popularity as a garden flower, the Oriental hybrids dominate the lily cut flower market. Cultivars such as ‘Stargazer’, ‘Casa Blanca’ and ‘Mona Lisa’ are all quite familiar to retail floristry.

Whatever the type, garden lilies require much the same care. All are sun-loving plants that tolerate light shade, if necessary. Lilies prefer a fertile, well-drained garden loam. The importance of soil drainage for the survival of bulb plants cannot be overemphasized and lilies are no exception. If drainage is a problem, incorporate several inches of well-decomposed organic matter into the area to be planted.

Planting depth also is very important for lilies to thrive. Lilies develop roots along the portion of their stem that remains below the surface of the soil. These “stem roots” are very important for both water and nutrient absorption. Therefore, lily bulbs should be planted deep enough for adequate stem root development. Dig a hole so that six to eight inches of soil remain above the top of the bulb after it has been covered. Addition of bone meal to the bottom of the hole also is recommended. Once planted, water the bulb and mulch if planting is done in the fall. The latter is the preferred planting time for lily.

An annual maintenance application of a general purpose fertilizer relative low in nitrogen (e.g. 5-10-5) can be made when plants start to break through the soil’s surface in spring. Be careful not to over-fertilizer, since excessive amounts of nitrogen can lead to tall, weak stem growth. Additionally, adequate amounts of water should be supplied and competing weeds eliminated.

Insects generally are not a problem. However, aphids can transmit lily mosaic virus which distorts blooms and causes mottling of foliage. Basal rot of lily bulbs can be a problem, especially in poorly drained soils.

Lilies make excellent cut flowers. Harvest them when the lower buds are showing color but not yet open. When arranging them, remove the bottom leaves and recut the stem at a 45 degree angle. Change the water in the vase every few days or use a floral preservative to prolong their beauty.

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REVISED: September 29, 2015