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Planting and Caring for Lilies

The Martha Stewart Show, September 2008

In Chinese, the word "lily" means "forever in love." These beautiful and fragrant flowers have been a symbol of purity for more than 3,000 years, and can be enjoyed as a cut flower in an arrangement or growing in your garden.

The cultivation of lilies dates back to 1500 B.C. with the Madonna lily, or lilium candidum. Many of the bright colors and forms of lilies were found on botanical expeditions during the 1800s in Asia. The Chinese and Japanese lily species were exported to Europe and hybridized to create new varieties that are popular today as cut flowers and as garden plants.

Today, lilies are one of the top cut flowers in the world due to their long vase life, flower form, and fragrance. In the garden, they are reliable perennials coming back every year with large gorgeous flowers requiring very little care.

White Flower Farm, a mail order nursery that grows and ships plants directly to customers, sells 23 varieties of lilies and several types of lily mixes. There are nine major divisions of lilies with oriental and Asiatic being the most popular. Oriental lilies are known for their large flowers and fragrance. They should be planted toward the middle or back of the garden due to their tall stems and large flowers. Asiatic lilies are known for their strong stems, flower count and bright colors and should be planted in the middle to front of the border as they are stockier.

Oriental Lilies

  • Lilium 'Casa Blanca': Pure white with out-facing blooms, highly fragrant, and majestic looking, these are one of the most popular wedding flowers used today. In the garden, they grow to 4 feet or more.
  • Lilium 'Robina': A cross between oriental lilies and trumpet lilies, known as Orienpets or OTs, these flowers are a new color breakthrough of lavender from Holland.
  • Lilium 'Stargazer': Widely recognized as one of the most popular lilies grown today, the Stargazer has a dark red/pink color and is up-facing and fragrant. This is also a good garden variety and very popular as a cut flower.
  • Lilium 'Shocking': Another cross between oriental and trumpet with striking yellow flowers striped with red, these flowers are out-facing and large.

Asiatic Lilies

  • Lilium 'Loreto': Bright orange with brush marks on each petal near the center, the loreto grows stocky and short with many flower buds per stem.
  • Lilium 'Toronto': A rich dark pink with a little yellow toward the center, the Toronto flowers face upward and are clustered toward the top of the stem. They are an early-blooming variety that can grow to 4 feet.
  • Lilium 'Litouwen': A pure white LA hybrid (a cross between Asiatic lilies and longiflorum lilies, which are the trumpet lilies), this group is very popular both as a cut flower and as a garden variety due to the strong stems and high bud count.
  • Lilium 'Pisa': Bright yellow with a golden blush in the center of the flower, the Pisa brightens any garden. 'Pollyana' is another yellow variety that is known for being an excellent cut flower as well as garden performer with 6 or more flowers per stem.

Planting Lilies
The best time to plant lily bulbs is either early spring or mid- to late fall. Lilies prefer cool soil (below 60 degrees) to root properly; planting in warm soil will lead to weak plants and smaller flowers. After the first year they will rebound from the transplant and perform well.

Lily bulbs are succulent fleshy scales with no protective covering which makes them different from other bulbs. They are not dormant so they need to be planted as soon as possible after you receive them. Keep them in the bags in which they came with wood shavings in a cool place until you are ready to plant.

Lilies prefer moist soil but not wet feet. If you have an area that has standing water, they will most likely rot over the winter. Choose a well-drained site, preferably not too dry. For sunlight, you will have more flowers and stocky stems with full sun but partial shade is the best because it protects them from the burning hot mid-day sun. They will hold their flowers longer and the color is better when they receive some shade during the day. The perfect spot has morning sun and late afternoon shade.

White Flower Farm's "As Time Goes By" collection combines 'Casa Blanca' lilies and hay-scented fern, dennstaedtia punctiloba. This fern thrives in the sun, which makes it different from others and combines well with the lilies, filling in the surrounding area with beautiful texture. Lilies like ferns at their feet because they have shallow roots which form a mat, keeping the lily bulbs cool.

The best planting depth for bulbs is generally three times the size of the bulb. For oriental lilies, 6-inches is a good depth. Asiatics can be planted 4 to 5 inches deep. Adding some bulb food or bone meal gives them some phosphorus to start. Interplant the ferns and lilies by planting them in an alternating pattern 10 inches apart.

Adding some compost or dried aged manure for organic matter will help hold the moisture and fertilizer. Lilies and ferns like moisture, so it is important to water them after you plant and water them during dry periods. Lilies enjoy bulb food and mulch in the spring. Remember when you are planting that it is best to plant in a patch keeping the bulbs grouped together so when they flower it makes a statement. A common error is to plant them too far apart or in a row.

Caring for Cut Lilies
Lilies in a vase are elegant; there are a few tips to keep them looking their best. First, only cut the length you need for the vase, nothing extra. Any foliage or stem that you leave on the plant will feed the bulb for the next year. If you purchase cut lilies, remove the foliage that is under the water but leave the leaves above as they retain moisture for the stem and flower.

Removing the anthers, which carry the pollen, can prevent a clothing disaster -- it can stain your clothing as soon as water hits the area. If you do by chance get pollen on your clothing it is important to remove it; try using cellophane tape for simple removal. For cut flower care, use flower preservative that you receive from the florist and cut the stems on a 45-degree angle. Every few days, change the water and recut 1/2 inch off of the stems. Keep your flowers out of direct sunlight and they will last longer.

Special Thanks
Special thanks to Barbara Pierson for giving lily bulbs and copies of the White Flower Farm catalog to our studio audience.

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