Imagine the moment when the plant hunter, Ernest (Chinese) Wilson first came across a ravine in Szechuan Province in China which was alive with L. regale in full flower. In his excitement and desire to get closer, he slipped and fell, starting a small avalanche of rocks and stones which damaged one of his legs permanently, causing him to limp for the rest of his life - what he called his 'lily limp'. But what he had found caused a sensation when he got back to England. And now, just over a hundred years later, the beautiful Regale Lily is one of the most popular, reliable lilies we grow. The combination of pure white, yellow throated, trumpet shaped flowers on tall elegant stems, combined with a delicious rich scent is hard to beat.
And at Tate Britain, John Singer Sargent's famous painting 'Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose' was inspired by the artist, whilst boating on the Thames at Pangbourne in the late summer of 1885, spotting a romantic image of exceedingly tall lilies growing in a riverside garden lit by Chinese lanterns. This lily is most likely to have been the Japanese mountain lily, L. auratum, also known as the golden rayed lily and one of the 'true lilies'. Huge white trumpet flowers with gold radial markings and a red spotted interior, L. auratum is another stunning lily and one can imagine why Sargent spent each evening in the autumn of 1885 capturing the exact 'mauvish light of dusk' on the lilies that he'd seen from the boat. And this lily too has a most powerful, evocative scent, once described by Christopher Lloyd as 'none too subtle, but who cares'.
Lilies have been grown in gardens for hundreds of years and the Madonna Lily (L. candidum), seen so often in Old Master paintings, was a symbol of Christ's mother, of 'purity and innocence', and was widely grown in monastery gardens. There are more than a hundred species of lily in the genus, Lilium, with hundreds of hybrids now available on the market in all colours and forms.
The Asiatic Hybrids These are easy to grow, prefer an alkaline soil, are very hardy but the majority are not scented.
Longiflorum Asiatic Hybrids are rather beautiful and are good garden plants. The true Longiflorum lilies, much loved by florists, are white and have a delicate scent. They are not fussy about soil type but as they emerge from the soil early, they can be prone to a late frost so it's wise to protect them against this.
There is also a new group of hybrids called Longiflorum Oriental Hybrids and as with all the Longiflorums they have a delicious scent.
And then there are the Martagon lilies (pictured left) or 'Turk's cap' lilies which are perfect naturalised either amongst shrubs, or in light woodland. They were one of the first lilies to be grown in our gardens and were named after a particular turban worn by a Turkish ruler, Sultan Mohammed 1. These lilies don't have the fragrance of some of the showy hybrids or the Speciosum lilies, but they have an elegance and beauty all of their own which more than makes up for the faint scent. They are happiest on a neutral to alkaline soil, can take some shade and also dryness which is unusual for lilies. In time they will build up large, long-lived colonies by means of a flat seed which gets spread by the wind rather like a mini Frisbee. There's a white form, 'Album' with distinctive yellow anthers which lights up a shady area beautifully. They flower in late May/June, rather earlier than most other lilies.
To get the best from Martagon lilies, plant on a slope if you have one and when you're starting them off, add plenty of humus and then let them get away in their own time.
Oriental Trumpet Hybrids are the result of some rather complicated breeding and are known as 'Tree Lilies' or 'Skyscrapers'. These are giants of the lily world growing up to six feet and fragrant. The plant is particularly floriferous and has a long flowering season. I particularly like 'Belladonna' which is a very soft lemon yellow.
Oriental Hybrids need ericaceous compost and are marvellous in containers as long as the soil is appropriate. Add a slow release fertiliser such as Osmocote when planting initially. Lilium 'Miss Lucy' is a lovely, double Oriental lily, white with pink tones and with a sweet fragrance.
Species Lilies. Most of these are more than beautiful but rather more difficult to grow. I've tried Lilium nepalense, which comes from the Southern slopes of the Himalaya, without a huge amount of success and not enough expertise. It is absolutely the most exquisite lily with a black centre and green edges. In this country, it could be grown in a cool greenhouse but the watering regime which needs to emulate snowmelt concentrates the mind. Try though, L. Henryi which is orange with black spots and dark red anthers or L. 'Black Beauty' which has raspberry red flowers and black stems.
Ideally, lily bulbs should be planted in the autumn although this is often difficult as most bulb suppliers tend to market them in the spring! They are perfect for large terracotta pots or 'long toms' which can then be moved to the perfect spot as they come into flower later in the summer. Or have them on a patio where you can enjoy their fragrance or gathered round your door for both visual impact and the chance of making the most of their scent. L. Regale are particularly good for this as their scent becomes even sweeter in the evenings.
Lilies should be planted in a well drained but moist soil - and actually it is good practice to add a little grit or sharp sand under the bulb which will help drainage on a heavy soil. What they don't like is winter wet. Heaven help them this winter. If you are growing in pots and can possibly store them in a cool, dark place, do. If not, some protection from rain would come in handy. I have mine covered inelegantly in old poultry food bags. Not good looking but hopefully, they are not rotting away as we speak.
As for planting depth, well, L. candidum, or the Madonna lily need shallow planting - about two inches deep from the surface of the soil but other lilies prefer at least six to eight inches with plenty of room for their long root system.
A John Innes soil-based compost (No. 2) is an ideal medium if you are growing lilies in pots - apart from the varieties that prefer an ericaceous soil (Oriental lilies), or a chalkier soil (L. Regale, L. Candidum). Check out their needs when you buy the bulbs.
And of course, planting in pots reduces the chances of the bulb being munched by slugs or being eaten by mice. The lily beetle, as its name implies, is a rather beautiful red creature but is a pain as it eats lily foliage and then its larvae, which appear on the leaves in a slimy mess, start doing the same when they hatch. But the adults are easy to spot and if you are quick enough, to remove. They have an annoying habit of dropping off the plant when they sense you, or do they see us, and lying low at the base of the plant in the hope that they won't be spotted!
Sue Whigham can be contacted on 07810 457948 for gardening advice and for the sourcing and supplying of interesting garden plants.