There are so many plants given the name of Lily. Usually these are plants with strap shaped leaves crowned by big dramatic flowers. Water lilies and Alstroemerias are, I think, about the only exceptions to this rule of thumb. Even the name confuses people as it is frequently misspelled as Lilly or Lillium! In this article I am going to narrow the focus to discuss the true lilies, that is the plants belonging to the plant genus Lilium.
(Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on February 3, 2008)
The plants of the genus Lilium have a scaly white bulb which looks a bit like an unopened flower. After planting, a tall green stem emerges, clothed in many simple dark green leaves. In some species this stem may exceed 6 feet (2m), but most types are of a more manageable size. As the plant matures the flowers appear at the top of the stem, usually in a multiple cluster of some kind. After flowering, the green stem will persist for quite a while as it stores energy in the bulb for the next year so it is wise to grow your Liliums somewhere where you don't mind having the leaves on show for a while if you want them to regrow in the following season.
Beginning with approximately 110 distinct wild species gardeners have gone on to produce well over 9,000 named hybrids, so there is probably a Lilium for everyone. To impose some order on this huge number of different plants hybridizers have divided the garden hybrids into nine divisions, each based on a different group of the original species.
Division One contains the Asiatic Liliums. They were created by hybridizing a group of species which originally came from central and east Asia These are probably the best Liliums for the beginner as they are easy to grow and come in a wide range of colours - white, pink, yellow, orange and red; pastel and bright tones; many of them marked with attractive spots or patches. The flowers are neat, medium sized, and they face upwards and outwards thus giving a good visual show in both pots and garden borders. The flowers are held 18 to 24 inches (45 to 60cm) in the air, born on strong columnar stems covered with attractive dark green leaves. The picture which begins this article is one of an Asiatic Lily, the cultivar 'Brunello'.
Division Two was created for hybrids derived from Lilium martagon and Lilium hansonii. These are the classic Turk's Cap or Turban lilies which have hanging flowers with petals which curl backward after the flowers open. Most commonly these come in brilliant shades of reddish orange, coral pink, cream and white, often with contrasting dark spots on the petals.
Division Three contains hybrids with Lilium candidum parentage. This tall white species has been crossed with other European species to create the plants in this group.
Division Four is called the American Hybrid Division. These plants originate from North American species, primarily Lilium pardalinum. They are unusual Liliums as they often have a perennial rootstock or rhizome instead of a true bulb. This type of root growth also encourages them to form clumps of stems each with its own flowers. This is a contrast to most species where you have to plant many bulbs together to gain a clump of flowers at flowering time.
Division Five's Longiflorum hybrids are the classic Florist's Lily. They make a fabulous cut flower and are grown commercially in large numbers world wide, though they are less often seen as a garden plant than other types of Lilum. Perhaps this is because one of their common names is the Funeral Lily. a name they share with the White Arum Lily, a plant which is is not a true Lily at all!
Division Six contains the Trumpet Lilies. These tall stately lilies have Lilium regale and Lilium aurelianse ancestry.Sometimes the plants based on L. aurelianse are given a separate name and called the Aurelian hybrids. A big draw in this group is their strong fragrance which can perfume the garden around them, especially at night time.
Division Seven are the Oriental Lilies. These are the real heavyweights of the hybrid lilium universe. Starting from a base of Lilium auratum and Lilium speciosum and mixing in several other mainland asian species along the way, these beauties have it all! Huge, strongly scented flowers (which last well as cut flowers); they come mainly in white, cream and carmine colours with all manner of interestingly marked petals. One of the major goals of current hybridizers is to increase the colour range and attractive pale yellows are now making an appearance in this group. The plants are tall, often exceeding 5ft (1.5m) in height, and may well need to be staked to help them cope with wind and the weight of the huge buds and flowers as they develop. Note the hand in the photo above to give a sense of the immensity of these fabulous flowers!
Division Eight is a catch all group for any hybrids which don't fit into the first seven divisions, including inter-divisional hybrids. One such group which has become prominent in recent years is the L.A. Liliums. These plants have an interesting history. The original intent of the hybridizer was to try and create a coloured version of the Christmas or Easter Lily (L. longiflorum) by crossing Lilium longiflorum with plants from Division One. Instead of what they wanted, the hybrids turned out to be a sort of "Super Asiatic" Lilium, with larger sturdier flowers and lusher stronger foliage! The flower shape and growth structure of L. longiflorum appears to have disappeared completely in the process. This only goes to prove that even "experts" can be surprised by what their plants can do. Another group of hybrids of great interest are crosses between Divisions Six and Seven, the Trumpets and the Orientals. These are called Orienpet or O.T. Hybrids.
Finally, Division Nine is reserved for all of the original species with their naturally occurring forms. These are many and varied. Some are tiny herbs, others are giant towers.
References used in the making of this article (with links if you want to know more):
Born and bred in South Australia, I have a serious case of "plantcollectoritis" but I come by it honestly as both my parents were keen gardeners. I am interested in Cacti & other succulents, Caudiciforms (also called "Fat Plants"), Bonsai from seed, and Bulbs - especially dwarf & species narcissi, hyacinths & exotic South African genera. I studied Botany at University but suffered ill health and had to withdraw from academic work. I just plain love plants but I have a real soft spot for the weird and wonderful ones! This is a photo of Kael, He's my kitty!