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True Lilies, Martagon Lilies and How to Plant

Lilium "Casa Blanca" lilies

Lilium “Casa Blanca”

Lilies. There are all kinds of lilies: Lily of the valley, daylilies, water lilies, and sword lilies, but these are all fakes. True lilies belong to the very large Lilium family which includes more than 100 species. That means there are many colors, sizes and forms to consider for your garden.

Right now the florists and supermarkets are offering potted Easter lilies, but these cannot be planted in our gardens because they are too tender. However, among those 100 species are many lilies that can be happy in our Massachusetts climate.

The North American Lily Society says that Asiatic lilies are about the easiest to care for and the earliest to bloom. These lilies are hybrids of several other lily families. They come in many colors and forms, with upright or nodding blossoms, and no fragrance which makes them easier to enjoy indoors in a bouquet. Many find the lily fragrance overwhelming.

Over the years I have only grown a few lilies. The most spectacular lily I grew was the fragrant “Casa Blanca” with its large, brilliant white, slightly reflexed petals. This Oriental lily is a real show stopper.

Henryi lilies in the Heath garden

Henryi lilies in the Heath Garden

The Henryi lily is in a family by itself. In my Heath garden I grew sturdy white and gold Henryi lilies which were about five feet tall. The golden orange L. henryi had speckled reflexed petals, and White Henryi had a golden heart with a bouquet of blossoms on its stem. Needless to say they were chosen because my husband’s name is Henry, but there was another earlier Henry, Augustine Henry was a plant hunter who discovered this lily in Hubei province in China in 1888.

Lilium "Black Bearty"

Lilium “Black Beauty”

Right at the edge of our Heath patio I planted two tall lilies that resembled each other. I don’t think any of my photos show much difference between the two. “Black Beauty” an Orienpet hybrid, and Lilium speciosum rubrum both bloomed in speckled shades of wine-red with touches of white, and recurved petals. Both bloomed in August but “Black Beauty” had a light fragrance, while L. speciosum rubrum had a lovely rich fragrance. “Black Beauty” was the first Orienpet hybrid created by Leslie Woodriff who also created the “Stargazer” lilies.

I was unaware of scale so I was surprised when the flowers of the Martagon lilies I planted were very small. The plant grew to about four feet, but the delicate blossoms were very small with the graceful recurved petals thus giving it the name turk’s cap lily. Plant catalog photos do not necessarily give you complete information. It did all right in my garden, but it did not increase, probably because I failed to give it lime. Most lilies like an acid soil, but not martagons.

It used to be that gardeners were told it was best to plant lily bulbs in the fall, but that is no longer an imperative. Except for the martagons. Martagons should be planted in the fall, and their soil pH raised with ground limestone.

As I considered where I might plant a few lilies in my new garden I was caught up short because a review of planting instructions reminded me that lilies need good drainage. That was not a problem in Heath but I am not willing to doom any lily bulbs to a drowning death in Greenfield. No lilies for my garden.

When choosing a site for lilies remember that they need sun, but can tolerate a little shade. Martagon lilies are the most shade tolerant. The question is how to measure sun. Sun and shade shift and change all day in my garden, but I know which areas get six hours or more, which qualify as full sun, even if those are non-consecutive hours.

Martagone lilies

Martagon lilies with its small blossoms

Because lily bulbs will be waiting to start growing do plant them in spring as early as the soil is workable.

Lilies are big plants so while you are preparing the soil be sure to add some fertilizer. Some people just depend on a 10-10-10 general fertilizer. I prefer organic fertilizers. Nitrogen is especially important at the beginning of the season so it is good to find a fertilizer with an N-P-K that is something like 5-2-2. The soil should be fertilized when planting and again every spring.

Lily bulbs should be planted between four and six inches deep depending on the size of the bulb. While planting bulbs think ahead to the full grown plant which could be four to six feet tall, and could be holding up a whole bouquet of blossoms on a single stalk. This means staking is a good idea. While you might think that having sturdy garden stakes up all winter and spring is not very attractive, there is a remedy.  As you plant your bulb place a small stake near the bulb and then fill in. Water well so soil sets in all around the bulb with no air pockets.

The little stake can be removed in the spring and a sturdy stake slid in to replace it.

Make sure the bulbs are 12 inches apart. If they are large bulbs, make it 18 inches apart.

Finally mark/label the planting site so that you will not forget where you have a new planting. I confess I have tramped across planted areas in the spring because I forgot they were planted, and even pulled up early shoots because I thought they were weeds.

Are there any lilies in your future?

Between the Rows    March 31, 2018

9 comments to True Lilies, Martagon Lilies and How to Plant

  • Helen Opie

    Would lilies be happy on raised beds, about 6 – 8″ above grade and standing water? I, too love lilies, and today know why I lost so many.

  • Lisa at Greenbow

    I have several lilies. I will plant more if my local nursery has them. I have never been successful with martagon lilies. Now I know why.

  • Pat

    Helen – I cannot answer your question. My whole back yard garden is essentially a raised bed, constantly being replenished. I doubt that it is 8 inches above grade, but I know that the soil beneath all the soil I added is heavy wet clay. It might very well be worth a try with one lily. Let me know if it works.

  • Pat

    Lisa – Always good to find out actual reasons for a plants death, and not have to consider the disdain of the gods.

  • Helen Opie

    Shall do! My ground is soggy until late spring, although this winter has been so dry that it may be dried a month or 2 earlier than the usual mid-June.

  • Joanna @ Gingham Gardens

    I say this about lots of flowers, but I do believe lilies are my favorite. I’ve never wanted to shell out the bucks for martagons, just because they underwhelm me. No gardening here in Minnesota yet. Well outdoors anyway, I have seeds going and some bulbs potted up indoors. Soon, we hope, soon! Happy gardening!

  • Pat

    Joanna – I think we might actually be able to start gardening here – today. It is at least warm enough that I am willing to go and work outside on cleanup. No planting yet.

  • Pat

    Helen – Things are beginning to move along here. I am even willing to get back to spring cleanup. Aside from indoor seedlings, it will be a while before planting outside.

  • Helen Opie

    Just for comparison, today I have pair of men digging my garden beds, probably not all 23, and 2 or 3 are prepared from last fall. This is unusually early; usually water table is 1/2″ above grade now. It is April coolth and late June moisture. Will plant hardy greens, onions, and parsnips & dill next week after the new moon.

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