Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
August, 2007
Regional Report

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'Tiger Babies' is a dreamy Asiatic lily that masquerades as a Tiger lily. (Photo courtesy of The Lily Garden.)

Make Way for Lilies

I fell hard for lilies this summer. It started with a seemingly endless border of gorgeous lilies of different types and colors next to a house I passed one morning. Then on a visit to my favorite nursery, a 6-foot-tall, elegant 'Golden Splendor' trumpet lily greeted me and I couldn't leave without it. Since one of my gardens is in need of an overhaul, I decided to make way for lilies.

In visits to local nurseries, nearly every one had lilies to tempt me. To economize, I began writing down names of varieties that I admired and returning later when the plants were out of bloom and on sale to make my purchases. Thus I have new plants to put in the ground and some bulbs I ordered by mail. Fortunately, fall is an ideal time for planting these jewels.

True lilies, in the genus Lilium, are a varied group that includes many different types with different bloom periods, so you can have lilies in bloom throughout the summer and early fall. The classification of lilies is a bit complicated and the choices mind-boggling, but here are some of the most common types that you'll find at nurseries:

Asiatics seem to have the widest color range and form of any type. They start off the lily season in summer, and the most common types have large blooms that are upward-facing and not especially fragrant. The ever popular and vibrant orange 'Enchantment' and deep wine 'Montenegro' are typical of what you find at retail outlets, but the peachy 'Tiger Babies', which evokes a Tiger lily, gives a glimpse of the wealth that Asiatics have to offer.

Trumpet lilies begin blooming in midsummer, the name evoking the elegance of their flower shape. While trumpets grow to only half their height the first year, the following years they can easily reach 6 feet tall. With three stems on a typical large bulb and as many as 15 flowers per stem, these lilies make quite a statement, and frequently require staking. Trumpets are especially susceptible to cold damage and should be mulched after fall planting.

'Copper King' is a knockout, with orange-apricot flowers with copper-red veins on the outsides of the petals. 'Regale' has been a favorite of mine for years, with its white trumpets with red exterior veins.

Tiger Lilies
Tiger lilies, so named for their traditional orange flowers with dark speckles, parade their strongly recurved petals in late summer. The petals -- in warm tones of yellow, orange, and red -- seem to be doing back flips. Tiger lilies grow to about 4 feet tall and are seldom fragrant. Lily leaf beetles tried to devour my tiger lilies this summer so I had to visit them often to pinch the tiny red insects (without gloves) and wipe their black larvae and excrement off the undersides of the leaves (with gloves, of course!).

Late summer is also show time for the Orientals, which range from 2 to 4 feet tall, with huge flowers (10 inches is common) and intense fragrance. The most famous Oriental lily is the crimson and white 'Stargazer', which was quite a breeding breakthrough when it was introduced in 1976 because it so successfully combined large size and intense fragrance, typical of the Orientals, with upward-facing flowers, typical of the Asiatics, although its exact parentage is unknown. Growers loved it because the flowers didn't snap off in handling the way downward-facing Orientals tended to do, and the public fell in love with it, too.

Most Orientals are variations of red, pink, and white, but 'Golden Stargazer' is a creamy yellow. The pure white 'Casa Blanca' is not only beautiful by day, it appears luminescent at night.

Orientals don't fare well in very hot weather, so it's best not to put them against a stone wall or building that reflects the heat, and if your summer is dry they will need supplemental watering.

Lilies are so easy to cross-breed that you can find a dizzying number of hybrids, such as the increasingly popular Orienpets -- crosses between Orientals and trumpets. I could go on and on ...

Keeping Lilies Happy
Lily bulbs need more tender treatment than spring bulbs like daffodils because the scales are easily damaged, and the bulbs shouldn't be allowed to dry out because they never go completely dormant. The most important requirement for growth is very well-drained soil (slopes and raised beds are ideal), but lilies need consistent moisture, too, so mix in plenty of compost when you loosen the soil deeply.

Plant the bulbs 4 to 6 inches deep. Roots emerge not just below the bulb but also above the bulb at the base of the stem, thus a deeply planted bulb will have a better developed root system. Mulch is important for shading the roots because lilies prefer their heads in the sun and their roots in the shade. Mulching newly planted bulbs is recommended to delay freezing of the soil and give new root systems more time to develop before winter. But this may invite rodents to take up residence in the mulch and they find the lily bulbs quite tasty, as I can attest after discovering my newly sprouted bulbs had almost completely disappeared on my next visit to the garden. To be on the safe side, spread mulch later in fall when the ground has started to freeze and critters have prepared winter quarters elsewhere.

Lilies benefit from a balanced fertilizer when the shoots emerge and again about a month later. When cutting the flowers, take as little of the stem as possible to allow the remaining stem and foliage to make food for the bulb. When flowers have faded and the stems have yellowed, they can be cut to the ground.

I've but skimmed the surface of lily varieties and culture, but there are lots of resources to help you dive deeper. Enjoy the plunge!

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