Your Complete Guide to Growing and Caring for Lilies
With so many varieties to choose from, finding the right one for your climate is key.
For centuries, lilies have held a role as one of the most symbolic, beautiful, and popular flowers in the world. In Greek mythology, they were said to be created from the breast milk of Zeus's wife, Hera, and symbolized purity; in the Christian faith, lilies represent the purity and chastity of Mary and the resurrection of Jesus, says Lynn Slackman of the North American Lily Society. "Lilies also have varied meanings throughout many cultures, and different-colored lilies have their own symbolism as well," she explains. Yellow stands for joy and health, red for romance and passion, orange for confidence and wealth, and light pink for elegance and generosity.
With a countless number of hybrid lilies on the market, a little research and planning can lead you to the type that's best for your climate—and that will make the biggest impact in your garden. "From a design perspective, lilies add a flower size variation frequently missing from mixed borders and natural flower gardens, which often have lots of finer smaller flowers but not as many larger architectural flowers," says Kerry Ann McLean, senior horticulturist at Longwood Gardens. "Small lilies pack a punch of color to containers, and there are cut-flower gardeners who could not live without lilies—just remember to remove those messy anthers. And then there is fragrance! What is a garden without an appeal to all of the senses, especially the sense of smell."
Understanding the Different Types of Lilies
The family Liliaceae includes a nearly infinite number of plants, since lilies are easy to propagate and hybridize. "There is a huge number of lilies on the market with new hybrids coming out every year," says McLean. "It is enormously confusing." To organize the flowers—and make it easier for home gardeners and horticulturists to keep track of them—lilies fall into nine different divisions: Eight divisions of hybrids—Asiatic; Martagon, also known as Turk's Cap; Candidum, American, Longiflorum, commonly known as Easter Lily; Trumpet and Aurelian; Oriental, also called Stargazers; and Interdivisional—and one of naturally occurring species. "The divisions are meant to identify and group together traits that would be significant to the gardener," says McLean: "Flower color, form (trumpet, bowl, flat or recurved), orientation (upward facing, outward facing or downward facing), fragrance, size, hardiness, [and] bloom time."
But with thousands of known—and many other still unknown—types lilies growing all over the world, says Slackman, choosing the right one for your space can be tricky. "People tend to plant the wrong lily in the wrong place. Do some research on growing conditions and climate requirements before planting and planning your garden," the pro explains. Each division has its own growing habits, so finding the plant that will complement your landscaping and thrive in your yard is a key first step to including lilies in your garden. "For example, Asiatic Hybrids tend to be smaller plants in this genus, very hardy, very easy to grow, with large open upward facing flowers in a wide range of colors but with very little to no fragrance," says McLean. "Asiatics typically bloom early to mid-summer, require full sun and can tolerate a range of soils. Oriental Hybrids, sometimes called Stargazers, also have large open upward facing flowers in a wide range of colors and can be more moderately sized—however, they are intensely fragrant, bloom in late summer and are not reliably hardy everywhere. That is a big difference!"
How to Grow and Care for Lilies
Though each type of lily has its own specific growing requirements, some needs are consistent across all (or most) types of the flower. "Lilies look like they would be fussy plants, but they are actually quite easy to grow," says Slackman. "They are not particular about soil type or pH, and they grow well in full sun, part sun, dappled shade, and sometimes even light shade." But they do all have one critical need: "Even more than other bulbs, lilies demand well-drained soil," says Slackman. Plant the bulbs at least 12 inches underground, and add sand if you have dense, heavy soil that holds onto water. "In general, all lilies do not like soggy soil or wet winters but they also do not like dry summers," says McLean. "Even moisture is key and surprisingly, cool feet is mostly universally preferred across lily divisions." Plant your bulbs after the last frost and stake taller varieties to support them as they grow; use mulch, compost, or a natural ground cover to shade the bulbs and keep them cool during the blooming season. "They will also need a cold period to rejuvenate," says Stephanie Simms of the North American Lily Society. "Leave the bulb in the ground, and, if you live in a really cold area, cover with some extra mulch to help protect them. If you plant them in pots, you will need to move those pots to a cool area such a garage."
How to Incorporate Lilies Into Your Garden Design
The diversity of lilies allows you to find the perfect fit for your garden—regardless of where you live or your preferred landscape aesthetic. "From towering six- to seven-foot stems with heavy perfumes, to dainty one-foot-tall stems that are lightly scented, there is a variety within the divisions to suit many tastes and gardens," says Simms. "Orientals are the most amateur-friendly lilies, and their exotic look and smell is what hooks many growers to lilies. They are also very popular in many garden centers so you can get started pretty quickly." Choosing several plants with different blooming schedules benefits your landscape all year, says McLean: "If you incorporate lilies from different divisions in your garden or containers, you could have continuous bloom from late spring through frost."
For the eye-catching displays at Longwood Gardens, MacLean often incorporates larger lilies—like African Queen Trumpet Hybrids or Martagon Hybrids—which grow taller than other perennials to make a towering statement. Another favorite choice for home gardeners: The "Tiny" series from Lily Looks, a line of six dwarf Asiatic hybrids that remain under 22 inches tall. "They are perfect for containers, super easy to care for, and come in a vibrant range of colors," says McLean. "These are lilies for those who like flowers but don't want to be gardeners." For a more traditional—and easy-to-grow—lily, she recommends the Formosa lily. "This is a hardy white trumpet lily that grows to a modest two to three feet, but will bloom continuously for three months," she says. "In addition to its flower form, it has a gorgeous tawny seed pod that will last most of the winter. It is just stunning!"