Lilies are a complex group of plants, but you can simplify them into two distinct types, the Asiatic and the Oriental.
If you want heady fragrance you need to grow Oriental lilies and these have large, wide-mouthed flowers in combinations of pink, white or carmine. Their round to oval foliage tends to sparse, but varieties like the white 'Casablanca' and the pink 'Love Story' make an exuberant show.
However they need acid soil so most gardeners have to grow Oriental lilies in containers of ericaceous compost rather than in the ground.
Asiatic lilies are not scented and their flowers tend to be smaller. However they come in vivid colours including bright-yellow, fiery orange, deep-red and almost-black. Given alkaline soil, they multiply quickly and they are very hardy. These versatile plants do well in alkaline soil, or in a container filled with either a peat-based or coir-based compost.
Most lilies do well in containers although the pollen stains clothing, so tuck them away. They will perform well for two years, but just like tulips, it’s best to replace the bulbs and start again particularly now that lily beetle is a problem.
The bulbs must be kept dry over winter. Store the pots horizontally so that they are lying on their sides.
When to plant
Generally lilies are best planted in the autumn when the bulbs are at their peak. This gives them time to establish before next summer. However if you find good quality large bulbs in spring you can plant them then, although don’t buy any that are sprouting.
How to grow lilies
All bulbous plants need good friable soil that’s well drained. If you have heavy clay, it is best to grow lilies in containers because their stubby roots will not be able to penetrate the ground. Slugs will also be more of a problem. Clay soil also gets cold in winter and lilies appreciate warmth.
Their ideal position is feet in shade and head in the sun.
In the ground
Either plant them on a slope, to allow the water to drain away, or add coarse grit when planting. Also add plenty of humus (garden compost or loam-based John Innes no 2) to the soil when planting.
Planting depth varies from six to eight inches. Ask your lily specialist for advice.
- Many lilies do well in pots, although you will have to balance the taller varieties with larger, stable pots.
- Newly-bought bulbs always perform brilliantly, but often dwindle away in subsequent years. Treat them like tulips and replace them every year.
- Plant at least seven or nine bulbs in each pot so they make a show.
- You can also add vermiculite to the compost when planting: this insulator warms up the compost (aiding root development) and helps drainage too. Also add slow-release fertiliser like Osmocote.
- Keep the pots moist, but don’t over water or overfeed them. Lilies hate being wet. Make sure the water can drain away by standing your pot on feet.
- Try not to splash the foliage when watering. Oriental varieties should be watered with soft rainwater because tap water tends to be alkaline.
- Lily bulbs do not have a protective skin: their waxy flesh is exposed to the weather and pests like slugs can attack them.
- If you want to overwinter them then keep them as dry as possible by either putting them in a greenhouse, or laying the pots down on their sides.
Certain lilies can be left to multiply in the garden setting.
The Martagon (Lilium martagon)
The martagon lily thrives in dappled shade under deciduous trees and, if it’s happy, this demure Turk’s cap lily will self seed producing a mixture of white and dusky maroon flowers. It was one of the first lilies to be grown in British gardens and Gerard described it in 1596. Its common name comes from the style of 'martagon' turban adopted by the Turkish ruler, Sultan Mohammed 1 and the name Turk's cap was already in use by the sixteenth century.
Lilium martagon has the widest range of any lily, consequently it’s one of the easiest to grow. The finest colony can be found at Spetchley Park near Worcester. There are thousands of them carpeting the quarter of a mile between the house and the lake. The original seeds were almost certainly sown by Ellen Willmott in the 1880s. Once you have established a few, leave them to self seed.
The Regal Lily (Lilium regale)
This tall, white lily has proved a strong garden plant, but it’s best grown in a warm and sunny position. It was often placed under cottage windows, so that the scent pervaded the room, and it’s a great survivor in derelict gardens, even doing well on poor soil. Do not feed it, it prefers a lowly diet.
The Regal lily was originally discovered growing in the Min Valley (between Maoxin and Songpan) in 1903 by Ernest 'Chinese' Wilson. Hundreds grew on the hillside. Wilson recorded that "the blossoms of this lily transform a desolate and lonely region into a veritable flower garden". He stayed in the village of Sian Sou Qiao on September 3rd 1910 and wrote "I am certainly getting tired of the wandering life and long for the end to come". On the next morning Wilson’s party left in good spirits but Wilson suddenly noticed that his dog had stopped wagging his tail. Seconds later a huge rock fall occurred and Wilson suffered a compound fracture of his right leg and was forced to use his own tripod as a splint. He had to be carried to safety and forever afterwards he referred to his 'lily limp'. His plant collecting career was over. However Lilium regale proved to be a great success as a garden plant.
Excellent readily-available varieties
Colourful Asiatic lilies for alkaline soil
'Grand Cru' AGM
A yellow lily with a red bloth at the centre (100 cm).
White with a bright-orange starry centre that fades to apricot (75 cm).
Semi-double soft-rose lightly speckled in maroon (80 cm).
Claret-red flowers with green throats. This tough lily survives well in the ground and seems tolerant of many soils (110 cm).
Scented oriental lilies for acid soil
'Casa Blanca' AGM
Large waxy pure white (120 cm)
A white with yellow midribs (90 cm)
A single pink with darker pink midribs (45 cm).
Look out for lily beetle
These bright red beetles ravage the foliage of lilies, but they often appear on fritillarias in spring too. Destroy any you see.
The scarlet lily beetle, Lilioceris lilii, has been around for nearly seventy years and it was first noticed in 1939 when a colony was recorded in a private garden at Chobham in Surrey.
By the late 1950s the beetle (which came from Asia probably on imported lily bulbs) had become widespread in Surrey and was also found in Berkshire. By 1990 the beetle’s range had extended into Hampshire, Middlesex, Wiltshire, Dorset, Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire. But by the end of 2006 this pest had been found in almost every English county.
Reports to the RHS indicate that the beetle is established and spreading in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The RHS say that "up to quarter of amateur gardeners have experienced the problem" so it’s probably safe to say that its range will extend and affect even more.
However in parts of mainland Europe the lily beetle is kept in check by four species of parasitic wasp that attack the larval stage. But only two of these are known to occur in the UK, Tetrastichus setifer has been present for centuries. But Lemophagus errabundus was only found in Britain in 1999 however and there obviously aren’t enough of them at present to control the problem Gardening Which have suggested treating lilies as annuals and buying cold-stored bulbs in late May. By the time they get into leaf the beetles are less prevalent.
H.W. Hyde and Sons www.hwhyde.co.uk
Harts Nursery www.hartsnursery.co.uk
The Natural Gardener by Val Bourne is published by Frances Lincoln at £14.99. Buy this book at a discount from Saga Books.