Between the Rows: What to know about valley’s lily species when planting this spring

  • “The most spectacular lily I grew was the fragrant ‘Casa Blanca’ with its large, brilliant white, slightly reflexed petals.” — Pat Leuchtman Contributed photo/Pat Leuchtman

  • Martagon lilies have petite blossoms. Because they need a sweeter soil than most lilies, they welcome an addition of crushed limestone. Contributed photo/Pat Leuchtman

  • Lilium speciosum rubrum can grow up to six feet tall and is very fragrant. Contributed photo/Pat Leuchtman

  • The white henryi lily has a golden throat. Each stalk holds a bouquet of blossoms. Contributed photo/Pat Leuchtman


For the Recorder
Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Lilies. There are all kinds of lilies: Lily of the valley, daylilies, water lilies and sword lilies — but these are all fakes.
True lilies belong to the large Lilium family, which includes more than 100 species. That means there are many colors, sizes and forms to consider for your garden.

Right now, the florists and supermarkets are offering potted Easter lilies, but these cannot be planted in our gardens because they are too tender. However, among those 100 species are many lilies that can be happy in our Massachusetts climate.

The North American Lily Society says that Asiatic lilies are about the easiest to care for and the earliest to bloom. These lilies are hybrids of several other lily families. They come in many colors and forms, with upright or nodding blossoms, and no fragrance, which makes them easier to enjoy indoors in a bouquet. Many find the lily fragrance overwhelming.

Over the years, I have only grown a few lilies. The most spectacular lily I grew was the fragrant “Casa Blanca” with its large, brilliant white, slightly reflexed petals. This oriental lily is a real show stopper.

The henryi lily is in a family by itself. In my Heath garden, I grew sturdy white and gold henryi lilies which were about five feet tall. The golden orange L. henryi had speckled reflexed petals, and white henryi had a golden heart with a bouquet of blossoms on its stem. Needless to say, they were chosen because my husband’s name is Henry, but there was another earlier Henry. Augustine Henry was a plant hunter who discovered this lily in the Hubei province of China in 1888.

Right at the edge of our Heath patio, I planted two tall lilies that resembled each other. “Black Beauty” an Orienpet hybrid, and Lilium speciosum rubrum both bloomed in speckled shades of wine-red with touches of white, and recurved petals. Both bloomed in August, but “Black Beauty” had a light fragrance, while L. speciosum rubrum had a lovely rich fragrance. “Black Beauty” was the first Orienpet hybrid created by Leslie Woodriff, who also created the “Stargazer” lilies.

I was unaware of scale, so I was surprised when the flowers of the martagon lilies I planted were very small. The plant grew to about four feet tall, but the delicate blossoms were very small, with the graceful recurved petals thus giving it the name turk’s cap lily. Plant catalog photos do not necessarily give you complete information. It did alright in my garden, but it did not increase, probably because I failed to give it lime. Most lilies like an acid soil, but not martagons.

It used to be that gardeners were told it was best to plant lily bulbs in the fall, but that is no longer an imperative. That is, except for the martagons. Martagons should be planted in the fall, and their soil pH raised with ground limestone.

As I considered where I might plant a few lilies in my new garden, I was caught up short because a review of planting instructions reminded me that lilies need good drainage. That was not a problem in Heath, but I am not willing to doom any lily bulbs to a drowning death in Greenfield. No lilies for my garden.

When choosing a site for lilies, remember that they need sun, but can tolerate a little shade. Martagon lilies are the most shade-tolerant. The question is how to measure sun. Sun and shade shift and change all day in my garden, but I know which areas get six hours or more, which qualifies as full sun, even if those are non-consecutive hours.

Because lily bulbs will be waiting to start growing, do plant them in spring as early as the soil is workable.

Lilies are big plants, so while you are preparing the soil, be sure to add fertilizer. Some people just depend on a 10-10-10 general fertilizer. I prefer organic fertilizers. Nitrogen is especially important at the beginning of the season, so it is good to find a fertilizer with an N-P-K that is something like 5-2-2. The soil should be fertilized when planting and again every spring.

Lily bulbs should be planted between four and six inches deep, depending on the size of the bulb. While planting bulbs, think ahead to the full grown plant, which could be four to six feet tall, and could hold up a whole bouquet of blossoms on a single stalk. This means staking is a good idea. While you might think that having sturdy garden stakes up all winter and spring is not very attractive, there is a remedy. As you plant your bulb, place a small stake near the bulb and then fill in. Water well so the soil sets in all around the bulb with no air pockets.

The little stake can be removed in the spring and a sturdy stake slid in to replace it.

Make sure the bulbs are 12 inches apart. If they are large bulbs, make it 18 inches apart.

Finally, mark or label the planting site so that you won’t forget where you have a new planting. I confess, I have tramped across planted areas in the spring because I forgot they were planted, and even pulled up early shoots because I thought they were weeds.

Are there any lilies in your future?

Pat Leuchtman has been writing and gardening since 1980. Readers can leave comments at her website: www.commonweeder.com.