On Gardening

Summer's heat and humidity bring out the best in lilies

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Gardening Columnist
Thursday, July 1, 2010

If you look at old black-and-white photos of gardens between the world wars, the dominant flower of summer seems to be the lily. Tall and architectural, the stalks are festooned with nodding trumpets, hundreds of them in the richest gardens. One imagines Jazz Age afternoons, languid and a bit naughty, where the wafting fragrance of Asian lilies mingles with the scent of illicit gin.

The introduction of such pretties as the Regal lily, with up to 20 perfumed white blooms a stem, fostered a mania at a time when gardeners were far more constrained than we are today in plant choices and tastes. "The time has come for the Lilies to take their rightful place in rank next to the Rose," author and lily fancier Helen Morgenthau Fox wrote in 1928.

I'm not sure that ever happened. We think of true lilies, if we think of them, as cut flowers, the pollen dutifully removed to avoid staining, or as pot plants at Easter. Some people complain of the "smell."

Mention garden lilies, and most of us think of the daylily, which has a passing resemblance to lily blooms but with lots of fleeting flowers from a fountain of leaves. The lily, by contrast, shoots up a central stalk, the leaves radiate from it, and the blossoms are held just far enough from the stem to be extra showy. Many varieties are pungently fragrant, especially in the cool of the early morning and at dusk.

I am fully besotted at the moment by the lily and walk eagerly in Mrs. Fox's footsteps: Plant lilies, folks; your lives will be better for it. This passion has been inspired by a clump of a variety named Altari. In only its second season, the plant has expanded into a tall drift of willing flowers. Each trumpet, and there are dozens of them, is bone white with a magenta center. The colors work well with the neighboring pink-purples of the coneflowers and the lavender-blue of the Russian sage.

Apart from Altari's eye-catching beauty, a couple of attributes stand out. The lily flowers during a lull in the garden, after the first flush of roses, before the black-eyed Susans and sunflowers make a show. It steps on the stage when the days are hot and humid enough to wilt the garden and cultivator.

Lilies seem untroubled by this, not least because we have hybrids today that Mrs. Fox could not have imagined. Altari is one of them, a cross between oriental lilies, valued for their fragrance, and trumpet lilies, beloved for their flower size and plant height. The breeders call these, variably, Oriental/Trumpets, Orienpets or OTs.

As a group, they have a lot of petal thickness, or substance, which makes them long-flowering and resistant to melting in the sun. They grow tall. I want my lilies to look me in the face, or even to nod down at me.

Orienpets, longiflorums and a group called LAs have amazingly thick stems, some two inches across. This does away with the need for stakes for all but the tallest. They have a hybrid vigor, so the clumps expand year to year.

Being tall but slender, lilies fit nicely between shrubs and perennials and make a huge splash for relatively little real estate. Varieties that are buttery or lemon yellow in particular can be placed pretty much anywhere you have a bit of sun without fear of their clashing with other plantings.

Yelloween is a shorty in this company, no more than five feet, but with striking, upward-facing, yellow-green blooms. "It has the nicest fragrance of them all," said Brent Heath of Brent and Becky's Bulbs in Gloucester, Va. "But this year my favorite is Triumphator," he said. This is a longiflorum-oriental hybrid that is basically white with a vivid rose tint on petals that arch back.

One of my favorites this year is Catherine the Great, which forms tall clumps of lemon yellow flowers, profuse and exquisite. I saw it last week in the Oakton garden of Kathy Welsh. She is president of the American Daffodil Society but has a hankering too for lovely lilies.

She is eager to show me Silk Road, which is similar in color to Triumphator, but the rose hue is punchier and the stalks are nine feet tall. She has staked it, not because the stems can't support themselves but because a violent storm would break them. Orania is a bit shorter but delicious, a creamy yellow with rose pink blushes on the outer petals. Quintessence is a buff yellow with a golden throat overlaid with a rose wash. Caravan is another beauty, butterscotch yellow with red markings. Ortega is tall and its dark stems a little brooding. The flowers are a dramatic mix of ivory, rose and yellow.

In another garden recently, I encountered Conca d'Or, a gorgeous soft yellow Orienpet that grows to five feet. It would make a lovely cut flower.

Welsh also has Scheherazade, a tall, late-season lily still firmly in bud. When it opens in two or three weeks, its flowers will be a deep red lightening to gold at the margins of deeply arched petals. These lily introductions make July in Washington something to look forward to. Quite a feat.

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