The return of the lily


Lily Rexona, one of the entries at the Garden Club of Virginia's 70th Annual Lily Show in Burke. (Adrian Higgins/ADRIAN HIGGINS)
Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist July 11, 2012

Idon’t know what happened to lilies. They were once the ultimate summer bulb: fragrant, joyful, decadent. Then they retreated into a dark corner of the garden to join flowers that were inexplicably old hat and awkward, to be regarded as a batty aunt.

They deserve a comeback.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

In early summer, and in my mind, the lily still reigns. I look up my hill to stands of tall hybrids in cream, magenta and yellow, dancing with the coneflowers and Russian sage. In the long evenings of June and July, their sweet scent wafts down to the porch and announces the season.

A century ago, American gardeners were intoxicated by the arrival of new lilies from China and Japan, and the trade east across the Pacific was phenomenal. The market in lily bulbs from Japan was more than three times that of all other garden plants put together.

Today, lily fanciers must politely point out that the lily is not a daylily, or a calla, or a lycoris or any other lily lookalike. The need to explain this is a little bit sad, because the true lily is statuesque and lends character to any garden bed (or to big pots on the patio). I anticipate the arrival of the lilies every bit as much as the first daffodils, perhaps more so. They suggest that the heat of summer is worth it.


One of the entries at the Garden Club of Virginia's 70th Annual Lily Show in Burke. (Adrian Higgins/ADRIAN HIGGINS)

In search of a lily fix, I went recently to the statewide lily show put on by the Garden Club of Virginia, where cut flowers on a display bench stared you in the face and demanded your attention, if not affection. The show, hosted by the Garden Club of Fairfax and staged at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Burke, is sort of a throwback to the pre-digital age, when folks amused themselves with objects rather than screens. I commend it. Some of the varieties were thrilling.

Even Kentucky looks exotic

Candy Club has an exotic trumpet, impossibly long, thick-petaled and full of smoky magenta coloration. The bloom seems reluctant to unfurl, but when it does, it is fully peeled back, “reflexed” in lilyspeak, and quite happy to reveal the six anthers that hover about the central pistil. They quiver in the breeze, gyrate really, and it’s all rather bacchanalian.

Royal Sunset is much more demure, smaller and upfaced and painted in vibrant pink and tangerine, which sounds like a clashy combination but isn’t. I love Orania, which would pair nicely with dark-stemmed dahlias. This blowzy lily is described in one catalogue as “butterscotch with a raspberry swirl, strong statuesque appearance.” Who with a pulse could resist that? With its brooding plum black stems, it has come to define the modern out-there lily, waiting to be discovered.

Kentucky is the name of another lily on show, a soft orange thing with dramatic maroon flecking that seems highly variable but rises to a dramatic stain on some blooms. And who wouldn’t want Eyeliner for its name alone? The flower is even better, a freckled white with the daintiest purple black edge.

Holland Beauty caught my eye: It is big with broad, reflexed petals, and my sort of lily, bold and with thick petal substance (resistant to the summer sun) and fragrant. It has those rose-colored broad petal bands reminiscent of the ubiquitous florist’s Star Gazer.

An unforced beauty

Most of these high-performing varieties are the product of new breeding approaches that have transformed the lily in recent decades and made them better garden plants. But most lilies aren’t bred for the garden; they are raised for greenhouse forcing, to be sold year-round either as cut flowers or potted plants.

The lily qualities needed by a greenhouse grower are different from the ones required by the gardener. Garden lilies can grow to seven feet, with the candelabrum of blooms arrayed either upward, outward or downward. Commercial lily forcers, by contrast, want a plant that will flower early on a much shorter stem and put up with the lower light conditions of the winter greenhouse.

Another key trait of commercial lilies is the need for an upward flower. This permits tight packing for shipping without one bud getting entangled with another.

These concerns seem to forget the romance of the lily, which is why it is important to pick varieties that make handsome garden plants. My advice is this: Buy and plant bulbs in the fall, not the spring, by named variety and from reputable specialists.

‘Absolute favorite’

Most of the really good garden lilies come from advances in hybridizing. The popular class known as Asiatics has advanced greatly by being blended with the Easter lily. You know the old Asiatics, they were short, early season lilies in garish reds, oranges and yellows, blooming in late May. The hybrids are more subtle in form and color, and include Eyeliner, Royal Sunset, Kentucky and such lovelies as Suncrest and Swansea.

These hybrids, called Longiflorum-Asiatics or L.A. lilies, are supposed to grow to about three feet but actually dependably reach five feet in the Mid-Atlantic region with proper care, said Tricia Kincheloe, show chairman. They bloom a little earlier than the Asiatics, she said, but flower longer and persist year to year while the Asiatics tend to peter out.

Dianna Gibson, co-owner of B&D Lilies, in Port Townsend, Wash., reminded me why I prefer the taller, later, more architectural lilies. You cannot cut a lily to the ground after the flowers fade: Its leaves and single stem continue to feed the bulb until October. Stuck at the front of a garden bed on account of its shorter height, the flowerless Asiatic lily just looks conspicuously done in the coming weeks. Taller types can be placed farther back in the border, between shrubs or other perennials , and sort of blend into the vegetative buzz in their bloomless state.

So I’m a sucker for a class called OTs or Orienpets, which are hybrids of the Oriental and trumpet lily. Altari towers over my summer flower garden, and one year I planted at least a dozen amid the coneflowers and liatris and poppies. Three would have done it, but when it comes to lilies I just can’t hold back. At night the perfume is thick and sweet. Some might find it cloying, but I love it. The Altari is followed by five Scheherazades, a variety that grows even taller with an array of down-facing flowers that are maroon, highly reflexed and adorned with lovely kinetic anthers. Why did I plant only five?

In a stroke of genius (all right, dumb luck), I also planted the splendid, lower-growing OT named Conca D’Or. This now offers large, buttery yellow flowers amid the coneflowers, and the two complement each other in color and form.

“Conca d’Or is perhaps my absolute favorite,” Gibson said. “We were the first to get that in the U.S.”

I asked her what else she favors. She likes a straight Oriental variety named Sorbonne, which is a strong candy pink with white edges. “I love the fragrance,” she said.

Some people regard the lily as a bulb like a tulip, others simply a perennial such as a columbine. I think of the lily as an experience that no life should be without.

@adrian_higgins on Twitter

Read past columns by Adrian Higgins here.

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