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David Trinklein
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 882-9631

Lily: More than an Easter flower

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

March 6,2024

minute read

red-orange flowers

(Credit: Wikipedia.org)

Mention the word "lily" to someone, and it likely will conjure up an image of Lilium longiflorum, a fragrant, white, trumpet-shaped flower sold as a potted plant around Easter. The fact is, however, there are over 100 species classified into nine different divisions of the plant genus Lilium which makes it a much more diverse than most people realize. Perhaps because of its diversity, lily has been selected by the National Garden Bureau as its bulb plant for the year 2023.

white flower with yellow center

Most people associate the term "lily" with Lilium longifolium which more commonly is called Easter lily. (Credit: Wikipedia.org)

For thousands of years. lily has symbolized purity and renewal in many different cultures. 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.

One reason lilies have managed to thrive and adapt for such a lengthy period is closely tied to their reproductive strategy. These flowers have a unique floral structure that facilitates cross-pollination by attracting pollinators, such as bees and butterflies. The intricate shapes, vibrant colors, and alluring scents of lily flowers have evolved to ensure successful reproduction through pollination, contributing to their incredible resilience and diversity.

Many plants have lily in their name that are not members of the genus Lilium and, thus, are not true lilies. These include day lily, water lily, peace lily, calla lily, canna lily, lily of the valley, and many, many more.

As mentioned above, all species in the genus Lilium can be classified into one of nine divisions. Physical characteristics delineate these nine different horticultural divisions by parentage and then by the broad categories of flower aspect (upward-facing, outward-facing, or downward-facing) and flower shapes (trumpet-shaped, bowl-shaped, flat-shaped with just tepal tips recurved, or tepals strongly recurved).

purple and white flower

Division 1: Asiatic Hybrids

Found almost anywhere, these hybrids are the easiest to grow. Their flower aspect can be upward-facing, outward-facing, or down-facing, also known also as pendant. Asiatic hybrids are very popular, but unscented. Attractive and long-lasting, they are usually the earliest to bloom in the garden.

puple-pink flowers

Division 2: Martagon Hybrids

Martagon Hybrids are known for their height and the abundance (up to 40-50 per stem) of small, strongly recurved petals on down-facing or nodding flowers. They are early blooming and thrive in a shady woodland location. Martagon hybrids do not tolerate intense heat, humidity, and direct sunlight as well as other members of the genus Lilium.

white flowers with yellow insides

Division 3: Candidum Hybrids

This division consists mostly of European varieties and (unfortunately) are not commonly found for sale. They are one of the oldest and perhaps the first species of lilies introduced into culture. The Madonna Lily (Lilium candidum) (pictured) is thought to be over 3,000 years old and is the "standard bearer" of this division.

Division 4: American Hybrids

This division consists of cross of Lilium species native to North America, where they grow wild. American hybrids are quite tall, with nodding, downward-facing blossoms on tall, curved pedicels. American hybrids bloom around the end of June into early July.

white flower

Division 5: Longiflorum Hybrids

The species is native to both Taiwan and the Ryukyu Islands (Japan). With showy flowers, this division is cultivated for sale as a potted plant at Easter. It features large, fragrant, outward-facing, trumpet-shaped, pure white flowers. 'Nellie White' is the most widely planted cultivar of this division.

purple-white flowers

Division 6: Trumpet Hybrids

Trumpet hybrids provide long periods of ample and fragrant blooms, growing so large as to require staking. Tall and elegant, this division is composed of many Asian outward-facing and down-facing trumpet-shaped flowers. 'African Queen' (pictured) is a very popular cultivar of this division.

red flower with white margin

Division 7: Oriental Hybrids

This division contains hybrids formed by crossing species native to Japan. Most have large, out-facing flowers that emit a strong, enchanting fragrance. The Oriental hybrid 'Stargazer' (pictured) was a breeding breakthrough in the 1970s, noteworthy because of its upward-facing flowers, thus the name referencing looking up at the stars.

Division 8: Garden Hybrids

This division consists of hybrids of the other seven divisions. Garden hybrids will cross species by any number of methods such as the cut-style method, the grafted-style method and the in vitro isolated ovule pollination technique creating more variety, beauty, health, and disease resistance.

yellow flower

Division 9: Wild or Native Lilies

This division is comprised of all the species in their native form before hybridization. All the fabulous hybrids that we know and enjoy growing in our gardens have been derived from these wild lilies.

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.

hand holding bulb with roots above hole in ground

Because lilies develop roots along their underground stem, they should be planted deeper than most garden bulbs. (Credit. AdobeStock.com)

An annual maintenance application of a general-purpose fertilizer relatively low in nitrogen (e.g. 5-10-5) can be made when plants start to break through the soil's surface in spring. Care should be taken not to over-fertilize, since excessive amounts of nitrogen can lead to tall, weak-stemed growth. Additionally, adequate amounts of water should be supplied and 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. The vase life of lilies can be increased by removing the pollen-bearing anthers. When arranging lilies, 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.

Finally, it must be noted that some lily species such as Asiatic lily, Easter lily, Stargazer lily, and Oriental lily are toxic to cats.

Lily Fun Facts

  • Lily plants can range in height from one to seven feet, depending on cultivar.
  • A lily flower has three petals and three sepals. Collectively they are called "tepals."
  • In various cultures, lilies have been associated with love, devotion, purity, and fertility.
  • In Greek mythology, the lily was the flower of Hera, the wife of Zeus.
  • In ancient China, lily bulbs were a valuable food source.
  • Lilies have been used in folk medicine since ancient times to relieve a variety of ailments, including age-related diseases, burns, ulcers, and coughs.
  • By planting a range of cultivars, gardeners can have lilies blooming nearly all summer long.
  • Over 10 million Easter lily bulbs are harvested annually in North America and then sold to nurseries and greenhouses for finishing.

Acknowledgement: Information about lily classification was obtained from a publication by the National Garden Bureau (https://ngb.org/year-of-the-lily/).

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REVISED: March 6, 2024