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Go Wild With Species Lilies




Lily cultivation has a long history, dating back to ancient Rome.  In art, the Angel Gabriel is depicted as presenting a stem of pure white lilies to the Virgin Mary when he tells her she's going to be a mother; this variety is still known as the Madonna Lily.  Most people are familiar with the Asiatic and Oriental hybrid lilies on the market today, but the untamed species lilies from which our modern hybrids were derived are still available, and make interesting additions to the garden.

The species lilies have several traits in common.  They tend to grow tall and lanky, and host several pendulous flowers on each stem.  The flowers share the "Turk's turban" appearance, bearing five waxy, upturned petals freckled with darker spots.  Their colors tend to be limited to red, white, yellow and bright orange, and only a few species are fragrant.  So, why grow these flowers?  One reason is that they are easily grown; once established, a bed of species lilies will multiply like a herd of rabbits, filling in sunny, vacant areas with a thicket of strong stems and flowers.  Second, species lilies work well as cut flowers and can be used in formal or informal arrangements.  Third, they come into bloom during late summer, when many other flowers have passed their peak and look fairly shabby.  Finally, the species lilies make an heirloom garden historically accurate.  Rather than having to purchase a modern hybrid that looks like an heirloom (a la David Austin roses), an heirloom gardener can have the original article.


Lions and Tigers and Leopards ... Oh My!


Most gardeners are familiar with the tiger lily, but very few have heard of the leopard lily.  The flower on this species lily is brick red with a mustard yellow interior - a little gari§h for a formal garden, but definitely an eye-catcher for the more avant garde garden designer.  It's height and vivid coloring definitely attracts butterflies and the occasional hummingbird.

Less obtrusive are the Lilium davidiana, the bright orange Turk's cap, and its yellow cousin, Lilium citronella.  These hardy souls are often found surrounding long ­abandoned homesteads, which attests to their resilience and ability to adapt to inclement situations.  Both of these grow approximately 4 feet tall and flower in mid­-July in the Midwestern United States.

Edging toward the formal are the species lilies Lilium speciosum rubrum and Lilium speciosum album.  These lilies are colored burgundy red and pure white, respectively.  They are deliciously fragrant as well.  Their rich, regal coloring, delightful scent and stately countenance allow them to be incorporated into traditional garden designs.  Of all the species lilies, the speciosum lilies are less apt to collapse in a damp area, and can be planted in partial shade as well as full sun.


Growing Requirements


The lily bed represents a long-term investment, so adequate soil preparation and a good growing location are key factors to success.  Sun, sun and sun is one of the primary requirements for growing great lilies.  Full sun during the entire growing season helps the plants develop strong stems, full flowers and vigorous roots.  It also enables the plant to produce and store sufficient resources to facilitate flowering in subsequent years.

Lilies grow from bulbs, so maintaining a well-drained area is also critical.  Lilies are very prone to root and stem rot if they are exposed to perpetually damp soil, so incorporating organic matter, gypsum and even gravel into heavier soils assures that the plants stay solid and growing.  Sandy soils need to have some organic matter incorporated and the plants need mulch, as lilies don't appreciate being parched.  However, they will produce under drought conditions, but wet conditions generally bring on rot and fungal blights.

Like all bulbs, lilies enjoy a fall feeding of a good bulb fertilizer and bone meal, as well as regular feedings during the growing season.  A bloom booster fertilizer applied every two weeks from the time plants emerge until they go dormant builds the flowering capacity for next year and helps the plant to support the flowers it produces this year.




Lilies are planted in the fall of the year, any time before the ground freezes solid.  The species lilies should be planted 6" to 8" deep in holes that easily accommodate the width of the bulbs.  Because the bulbs do not have the same paperlike covering that daffodils and hyacinths do to protect their scales from damage or dessication, lilies should be planted immediately upon purchase or stored in dampened peat moss until they can be planted.

Lilies do have a "right side up" planting requirement.  The bulbs are shaped somewhat like an artichoke having one side flattened, one side slightly pointed and outer scales surrounding the center.  Plant the bulbs with the scales pointing upward; lilies planted upside-down will eventually come up, but the effort they have to expend forcing roots to go down and stems to go up may impact their ability to flower.

Any fertilizer should be incorporated into the soil surrounding the bulbs; lily bulbs, like other bulbs, will burn if high-nitrogen fertilizer is placed next to them in the planting hole.


Multiplication Times Three


After three to five years in one place, a bed of lilies needs to be divided.  Reduced flowering and increasingly stringy stems are a good indication that it's time to divide the plants.  The bulbs clone themselves and one mother bulb can play host to nearly a dozen baby bulbs.  A gentle tug on the clones after digging up a clump easily separates the "baby" bulbs from the mother bulb.  These can then be replanted and will grow to flowering size within two seasons.  If either the babies or the mother are damaged during division, dust with a fungicide such as powdered sulfur prior to planting.

Lilies also can be cloned by gently removing the scales from one bulb and planting each individual scale in a sterile potting medium.  Place the scale flat-side down into the medium, dampen the soil slightly and place the pots into the refrigerator to prechill for 6 weeks.  Surround the pots with a plastic bag in order to maintain the dampness.

After six weeks, the potted scales can be removed from the refrigerator and placed in a warm area.  The lilies should begin to sprout after ten days.  Maintain the same watering schedule as for seedlings - soil should be moistened thoroughly, but allowed to drain and dry out between waterings - and feed with half-strength water soluble fertilizer once a month.  These plants can be transplanted to the outdoor garden in the spring, and will flower when their roots reach a mature size, approximately two to three years later.

Finally, many of the species lilies produce seeds along the length of their stems which can be planted in the ground or in potting medium.  The seeds, like their grown-up counterparts, need to be planted right-side up.  Luckily they are shaped like the bulbs, with a definite point at the top and a flat side on the bottom, and they are large enough that they can be handled and planted easily.  Like the scales, lily seeds need a cold period, either in the ground during the winter or prechilled in the refrigerator if they are harvested and planted in seed-starting mix during the summer.  Tiny plants emerge within a month after the seedbeds are exposed to warmth, and will flower after three to five years in the ground.

Cloning lilies from scales or seeds takes some time and patience, but works well for the gardener wanting to fill a large area with these beauties and is willing to sacrifice time rather than money for the opportunity to do so.




Because the demand for species lilies tends to be limited to people seeking something a little different, they are generally not found at big box stores or most garden centers.  Mail order and online sources for the species lilies include John R. Scheepers and White Flower Farm.