Longing for lilies

A four-year old clump of OT lily ‘Elusive’. It was originally five bulbs.

Lilies have come a long way since the start of my gardening career. The first I bought were Lilium regale, along with other Trumpet hybrids such as ‘Pink Perfection’. This was because I was planting in my parents’ garden at the foot of the Downs and the soil was awful, white, chalky clay and I thought these had a good chance of survival. It turned out that they did, as long as I mulched heavily. But they finally succumbed to virus. Luckily these were the days, in the 80s, before the red devil – lily beetle, made lily growing so difficult. The range of lilies in those days was very restricted and garden centres would only stock the trumpet lilies and a few Asiatic lilies such as ‘Enchantment’ and, if you were lucky, L. auratum, the golden-rayed lily of Japan and red-pink, and very late-blooming, L. speciosum. Lilium auratum is lovely but not that easy to grow.

Lilies have developed more rapidly than almost any other plant, primarily because of the need to produce cultivars that make good commercial cut flowers. Now the range of cultivars is vast and complex. Most belong to various hybrid groups and it pays to know what each of these are like before you plant.

Asiatic lilies

Their flowers are usually upward-facing and in bright colours including yellow, orange, red, white and pink. They are not fragrant and they prefer alkaline soil. They vary in height from just 30cm to 80cm tall. A few kinds have no pollen and there are some double kinds. Most flower in early summer – June – July.

Oriental lilies

These have heavily fragrant flowers which can face outwards though in modern kinds face upwards. They are usually in shades of pink, white and red and some are double. They need acid soil. They vary in height from 50cm – 1.2m high. ‘StarGazer’ is the most popular of all. These flower later than many, from July to August.

Trumpet lilies

These have tall stems with several trumpet-shaped, fragrant blooms in shades of yellow, white and pink. Lilium regale, though a wild species, fits here. They grow in alkaline or acid soil. Lilium longiflorum, the ‘Easter’ lily (below) has fragrant pure white flowers but is not hardy in cold gardens. Usually at their best in late July.

Then there are the more modern hybrids.

OT lilies

These are hybrids of the Oriental and Trumpet lilies and are often sold as ‘Tree lilies’ or ‘Skyscraper’ lilies because of their vigour. In the first year they only grow to 1m high with a few flowers but as they establish they get taller every year, often exceeding 2m high with dozens of flowers. They are available in most colours and are fragrant. These bloom in July-August.

LA lilies

These are hybrids of Longiflorum and Asiatic lilies. This is the most recent type of lilies. They have upward-facing flowers in bold colours and will grow in most soils. They are fragrant and easy to grow, most flowering at about 1m high. Bloom in July.

How to grow

Lilies are hardy. They like a bright spot, though part shade is tolerated. They like a soil that is rich in organic matter but will grow in sandy soil, if kept moist and in clay if you add organic matter. They will not tolerate waterlogged soil. Most lilies produce roots on the stem as it grows from the bulb so they must be planted 10cm deep to allow for this.

In the garden, where they will be left for several years, space them from 15-20cm apart. If planting in pots you can plant them closer, to give a good pot full of blooms.

OT lily

Lilies can be planted now because they are hardy. Each lily bulb will be in bloom for two or three weeks and their narrow habit makes them ideal to plant between other plants and under slow shrubs. If planting in pots, choose dwarf kinds for small pots or they may blow over when fully grown.

The most serious problems are virus diseases, which are spread by aphids and cause plants to deteriorate and lily beetle, the bright red critters that eat the leaves and flowers in summer.


Remember that lilies are poisonous to cats. Cats are unlikely to eat the leaves – one only eats the best cat food and roast chicken! But lily pollen is dangerous to cats. In the garden it is not likely to be much of a risk but it can be if you cut flowers for the home. But you just need to pull off the stamens when you pick them and the problem is gone – as is the issue of staining from lily pollen. You can also get double and pollen-less lilies, especially Asiatic and Oriental lilies, to eliminate the problem.

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