ONE OF the great flowers of our century is the lily, 'Black Dragon,' and since lilies are temperamental, I am all in favor of enjoying it while we have it.
Lily enthusiasts love to assure you that it's all a slander, that lilies are temperamental, and in reality (they say) lilies are as easy to grow as zinnias and last longer, etc., etc.
And certainly it's true that any lily one grows is commonly in superb health. Otherwise it isn't there at all.
Viruses have been blamed for the transitory nature of many lilies in gardens, and of course bad drainage has accounted for billions of garden deaths, too.
But for whatever reason -- and at the risk of subjecting myself to fierce denials by lily fanciers -- it is an easily observable fact that lilies are a bit more chancy than say peonies or roses.
Years ago a friend of ours brought an enormous jug full of the wild and glorious Lilium auratum.
"But you shouldn't have cut them with such stem," I protested.
"For me they grow like weeds," that gardener said, with that strong trace of smug superiority that gardeners all too often adopt when they have had good luck with something.
Later I was in that particular garden and saw a fellow digging like mad, so I asked what he was fixing to plant.
"Some more of those blasted auratum lilies," he said. "We plant about 100 bulbs a year. The first year we get some flowers, the second or third year we get spectacular stalks and then they're gone. So we keep planting them, about 100 a year."
This explained why they grew "like weeds." Almost anything does, if you replace it every year.
But you must not think from this that lilies are difficult. Far from it. I myself have grown positively spectacular stalks of Lilium langkongense, a vaguely lavender turks-cap of lily from Asia, not rare but not very common either.
The secret of my success was simple. I obtained, through sheer luck, better bulbs of this lily than anybody had ever seen before. For three years, maybe four, they were worth looking at, if I do say so. It occurred to me I really should write a little piece explaining my admirable cultural methods, since not many gardeners had this particular lily looking so fine. Unfortunately the entire clump died about that time. Of course I had three or four years of those lilies; and this may be the place to say that no flower surpasses, and hardly any flower equals, the lily in beauty.
It is partly a question of texture. Lilies commonly have the texture of wax or of satin. The petals are usually thick. The colors are clean (usually) and brilliant. The stance of the plant -- the grace of the stem, the position in which the flowers are borne, the usual elegance of the leaves -- approaches perfection in lily after lily, however different the various sorts of lily may be.
There was a time you could buy Lilium tenuifolium, the little coral lily, for a dime per bulb. It was everywhere in gardens. Now it is not common at all in ordinary gardens, and you won't find it for a dime any more, either.
One of the handsomest lilies I ever grew was a hybrid called 'Mrs. Theodore A. Havemeyer,' though I never grew it quite so well as a friend did. In that garden it sent up thickets of stems 10 feet high, and in one clump you could see more than 100 flowers open at once, each bloom 6 or 7 inches wide, of soft buff yellow with a touch of green, the bloom bowl-shaped, somewhat recurved and well scented. The long anthers and rich russet stamens were impressive, too.
In that garden they sank iron pipe in the earth. The pipe was threaded and as the lilies grew they added more sections to support the lilies. The pipes were 10 feet high, and the lilies reached the top and cascaded down. I never saw it, or any other lily, so spectacular anywhere else.
My own plants of that lily were splendid, if not quite so splendid as my friends', and for several years I believed I finally had a flawless lily that was not grievously hurt by virus, that endured such vicissitudes of weather as late spring frosts, sudden torents, fierce damp summer heat and so on. One year without warning the heroic plants were not so heroic. It did not worry me in the least. I started a batch of new plants from the little offsets of the old bulbs -- they grow like weeds -- and assumed I would again have these amazing stalks.
For me it was not to be. Nothing I did made any difference and it has now been years since I had 'Mrs. Havemeyer.'
An deGraaff in Oregon changed the face of the lily world, through his raising of perhaps millions, perhaps billions, of lilies. Most of these were hybrids; descended, that is, from more than one wild parent. Many of them grew better in gardens than the elegant wild lilies ever did. Many of them were permanent in gardens, or as permanent as lilies get.
This past week I saw in a friend's garden some nice stalk of Lilium superbum. That is an American "swamp" lily from the southern mountains, and it is said to like endless water and (the and is important) perfect drainage, whereby water does not stand about the bulb and where its roots are not in soggy earth. If you get large fine bulbs, you will get stems up to 10 feet tall with perhaps 20 orange nodding turks-cap flowers at the top, and the stem elegantly frunished below with whorls of leaves.
"They're not as large this year as usual, are they?" I inquired. Wrong thing to say. The gardener somewhat tartly said they'd never been finer (with the implication that finer ones had probably never been seen).
Well, joy to those who can find joy, I always say. But they struck me as distinctly smaller this year, and the plants not quite as flourishing as in former years. I have seen Lilium superbum do that more than once.
Years ago another friend of mine grew this lily so magnificently that he thought the name of the lily was Super-bum, a name that suggested to him a great strapping healthy robust creature. I have called this lily Super-bum ever since, needless to say, but I have seen it die out more than once, going back a little for two or three years and then nothing. So my friend up here need not be so complacent. Last year I am almost certain that clump was either more super or more bum than this year. But who am I to raise doubts and I say let them enjoy their super-bums without worry. While they have them.
In my own mind I am convinced that most lilies (all I have ever grown) appreciate leaf mould and deep drainage. If a bed is dug three feet deep and filled with quite leafy and sandy soil, I think any gardener can grow many lilies without the least problem for several years.
I am convinced that not only will lilies not tolerate damp soggy airless soil, but they also will not tolerate compacted earth. One year, spending what seemed to me five fortunes on bulbs from Mr. deGraaff in the days he ran a retail lily-bulb business, I raised up beds 14 inches above the surrounding soil with a drainage trench down the middle, and the soil was, if I do say so, pretty marvelous. Incidentally, until you have tried raising a level a few inches, you have no idea how much dirt is involved. And of course I had put in endless quantities of sand, leaf mould, peat and flamingo tongues, etc.
The results were scarcely to be believed. The bulbs were huge, they were fairly new deGraaf varieties, and the stalks and flowers were worth a thousand times what I paid for them. I was in heaven there for a few days. Eventually, the lilies went back on me. I am convinced the soil particles gradually became compacted, merely from a few years of rain.
Now I have nothing to show in the way of lilies, but I did have today a great stalk of a thing called 'White Henryi,' which reached perhaps eight feet and had 20 blooms on the stalk open at once, flawlessly displayed on the stem and facing out, the cream flowers centered by a canteloupe-colored center, far more brilliant this year than in the past.
Tropical fishes often color gorgeously just before they die, of course.