Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow

By Heather Kirk-Ballard

LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

Every year, the National Garden Bureau shines a spotlight on a select group of plants, and for 2024, the lily has been chosen as one of those deserving special recognition. Celebrated during springtime events both in gardens and as cut flowers from florists, lilies are admired for numerous qualities.

For one, they have large, unique blossoms on long stems, with many varieties providing great fragrance. Lilies have been celebrated in mythology and in many cultures across the Northern Hemisphere for centuries. Lilies are thought to symbolize purity, rebirth and virtue.

Rooted in ancient Greek myths, lilies were said to have emerged from Hera's milk. Christian symbolism connects them to the Virgin Mary's purity. Their longstanding survival is partly due to their remarkable reproduction strategy, which uses their distinct floral structure to attract pollinators such as bees and butterflies. Their variety of forms, colors and fragrances has been naturally selected to maximize pollination success, leading to a wide range of species and sizes from 1 to 7 feet tall.

Lilies (Lilium spp.) are hardy, herbaceous flowering perennials grown from bulbs. Those in the Lilium genus are true lilies — unlike plants we commonly call lilies, including daylilies and canna lilies, which grow from tubers.

Lilies have very large, showy flowers and some have a strong fragrance. Many species are native to the Northern Hemisphere, and they grow well in temperate to subtropical climates in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 9. This genus is characterized by its members’ unique structure of six petals and six stamens.

The Lilium genus is divided into nine distinct horticultural divisions categorized by flower orientation (upward, outward and downward facing) and shape (trumpet, bowl, flat and recurved). These divisions include:

Asiatic hybrids. Known for their diverse orientations and lack of fragrance, they are among the easiest to cultivate and bloom early in the season.

Martagon hybrids. These are tall, shade-loving plants with numerous small, recurved petals, thriving in cooler, woodland settings.

Candidum hybrids. Primarily European, these are some of the oldest known lilies, with the Madonna lily being a notable member.

American hybrids. Native to North America, these varieties are tall with down-facing flowers.

Longiflorum hybrids. Cultivated for their large, fragrant, trumpet-shaped flowers, they’re often associated with Easter.

Trumpet hybrids. These hybrids are known for long-lasting, fragrant blooms that often require staking due to their size.

Oriental hybrids. This group of robust, fragrant flowers includes the popular Stargazer lily.

Garden hybrids. These are a mix of the previous divisions bred for increased variety and resilience.

Wild and native lilies. All hybrids are derived from these original species.

Early spring is a good time to plant lily bulbs. Lilies grow best in well-drained, fertile soil in a location with partial sunlight. The saying goes that lilies prefer their heads in the sun and feet in the shade. If you're growing lilies in pots, let the soil dry out in between watering to prevent bulbs from rotting.

Remove faded blooms but do not remove leaves. Let all types of lilies die back naturally and then remove dead leaves. Green leaves continue to photosynthesize throughout the growing season and put away energy reserves in their bulbs in preparation for winter. In the autumn, after stalks and leaves have turned brown, cut the lily plants down to the ground.

Bulbs will multiply and the plants will grow into large clumps with many stems, blooming year after year. They don't mind being crowded but they can benefit from dividing every three to five years. Watering should be deep and infrequent to encourage strong roots, and fertilization needs to be balanced to prevent excessive foliage at the expense of blooms.

Staking may be necessary to keep some varieties from falling over, and mulching helps maintain cool soil and weed suppression. Seasonal maintenance such as deadheading and preparing for winter is crucial for their longevity. Lilies also make excellent cut flowers, but the prominent stamens have messy pollen, so beware.

With their stunning looks and sweet scents, lilies have a special way of making our spaces more beautiful and vibrant. Let these gorgeous blooms add a touch of nature's magic to your gardens and homes.

Pink flowers.

The lily was named plant of the year by the National Garden Bureau. They make great cut flowers, and they grow well in the garden. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter

Pink and yellow flowers.
Lilies come in a wide array of unique colors and varieties. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter

Yellow flowers.
Calla lilies, like daylilies and canna lilies, are not true lilies. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter
2/15/2024 5:37:13 PM
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