Although I have always admired lilies in the garden for most of my 45-year gardening life, it was only recently-in the past 10 years or so, that I began to seriously invest in lilies as a plant. I mean, now I buy a dozen or more bulbs every summer (because this is the time to order lilies from a few professional lily nurseries in North America) and plant them after digging and delivery in late autumn.
Lilies add great value to the garden, especially when they are gathered in beds or in large clumps. I think most of us start by adding one or three bulbs to the lace, which is great, but the truly spectacular show is to plant a dozen or more in a space. Then the show became more like an incredibly beautiful bush. Thinking of lilies in this way will make them more useful.
I like to grow taller, mid-season and late-season varieties in hydrangeas. Their feet seem to thrive in the shade, but their tall stems are as high as 6-8 feet. Of course, not all lilies are tall, but I tend to like tall mid-to-late trumpets, Orients and Orientpets (a cross between the two departments).
Although the terrible red lily beetle (Lilioceris lilii) plagues many of us with lilies in the northeastern United States, it has not yet traveled across the entire country (imported from the UK). It looks like a cute ladybug, but it does not affect almost all lilies. Flowers, especially early in the season. In central Massachusetts, some of us noticed a decline in the number of lily beetles, but I am sure that some neighbors are still affected. Picking them off like Japanese beetles and putting them in a jar of soapy water seems to be the only trick to stop them from entering, but I bet our recent low population may be related to the parasitic wasps tested by researchers from the University of Rhode Island.
So many gardeners romance about their earliest memories of lilies – those we often called ‘tiger lilies’. While many use the name ‘tiger lily’ for the tall, black spotted orange blossoms with petals that curl backwards, some use the same common name for the common, orange roadside daylilly (Hemerocallis fulva), also an Asiatic import that has run rampant across much of temperate North America. Technically (or, botanically speaking) the true ‘tiger lily’ is Lilium lancifolium (once L. tigrinum), although just to confust things a bit more – there are plenty of orange lilies with black spots both native and non- native to North America in our gardens and woodlands. Generally speaks, it’s Lilium lancifolium though that we all should be referring to as ‘Tiger Lilies’. They are easy to identify from others as they form small, shiny black bulbils on each leaf (tiny bulbs), that help the plant form large colonies.
Lilies fill a gap in the border. That time in mid-July until early August when the Dahlias and late summer bloomers take over. This also happens to be the best time to order lilies as they are shipped in late autumn. LIke all good things, the best ones sell out early so check often to see if new varieties are posted and order imediately. Martagons and Trumpets seem to go first, while the newer Orienpets also sell out quickly.
I often forget to order lilies until it's too late, as early as August for the most needed varieties, but generally speaking, most lily nurseries have many varieties to choose from before planting. However, it is difficult to point out "bad" lilies because they add such value to any garden. Some growers release specials every week towards the end of the season. I like to look for bulbs from giant growers (the bulbs are too big to be available at the regular price) because they can have an immediate effect, such as 7-foot stems and a few dozen. A few flowers. Once the bulbs are dug out, these will be released later in the season. I hate to share my secrets, but there-I did it. You're welcome.
Asiatic lilies (not to be confused with Oriental lilies) usually bloom early, and the flowers are erect, usually with spots and warm colors such as bright orange, yellow, white, and pink. They also tend to multiply faster than other lilies such as Oriental Lily, Horn or Oriental Lily. These lilies usually have only one bulb, which grows in size every season without dividing. A cluster of oranges Asians (some varieties) can form a large cluster in just a few years, and a 5-8 year old trumpet or Orienpet may only have a pair of flowers in the first season, which may mature to 6-8 feet. The stem is no different from a tree with 30 or more flowers on it.
I like to invest and plant a dozen or two or three to make a spectacular statement on the border. Bulbs are usually cheap ($4-6 each), so the investment is not as bad as people think. The price of a dozen of the bulbs of these longevity lilies is about the same as the price of a beautiful hydrangea in the nursery, but few people can imagine the show.
In the US and North America there are just a few specialty nurseries that only grow lilies or at least, focus on them. Most also breed lilies and I highly recommend starting with these sources as you’ll get the newest varieties and often, the best. I should mention that while the term ‘lily’ is often used for many plants, “true lilies’ are within the genus Lilium (while daylilies are not lilies at all, but are Hemerocallis – and there are plenty of specialty nurseries who breed and sell daylilies, I highly recommend supporting them too). The two live well together, and they both bloom around the same time of year.
For true lilies, the list is short in North America. The way the bulb business works is much like the commercial perennial business, a few varieties are chosen that can propagate quickly and can ship well, as well as perform in the garden, and it is these varieties that eventually make it to Holland or other countries where they are multiplied (either through tissue culture or another method) to produce millions of bulbs either for the cut flower businesses or for distribution via the big Dutch growers. These are the few varieties that we find at most mail-order businesses and at nurseries, as well as at Home Depot or Lowes. The varieties arent bad, but they do tend to be more common, and older varieties.
A note on Tiger Lilies (L. lancifolium) , perhaps the easiest lily to grow as it multiplies quickly and can almost become invasive – for nostalgia’s sake along, I grow a plot but keep it separate from my other lilies because there they can spread and not become a nuisance. Many people also call the “wild” orange daylily that often grown naturalized along roadsides in New England the Tiger lily, but again, it’s a Hemerocallis species. Also, rather invasive and hard to get rid of if introduced into a garden setting.
I suggest learning as much about lilies (true lilies) as you can (I describe each of the divisions or different types of lilies) in my new book Mastering the Art of Flower Gardening (link on the right!), but it’s not hard to learn the differences yourself. Joining a local Lily Society will help tremendously as well, or better yet – find a lily show in your area and go see (and smell!) all of the varieties, just don’t forget to bring a note pad or your smart phone.