Question: How long has the Madonna lily been grown, I heard it was the oldest cultivated garden plant in the world? Heather, Baldwin, Pennsylvania
Answer: Heather, lilies have earned a place in our hearts, for what they are and for what they mean to us, for their beauty and for their symbolism.
Gardeners have much to learn about their culture. First of all, a lily is not a bulb which can be treated like a tulip or hyacinth – as if it had a fully dormant period. A living plant, the lily should never be in want of moisture or of food. It needs a well-balanced soil that is both moist and adequately drained, either neutral or slightly acid, and wen-aerated so that the lily’s high oxygen requirement can be satisfied. A good exposure to sunlight gives the plant a chance to develop straight stems and many flowers.
Easy-to-grow, attractive, tolerant of different climates and soils, persistent – these qualities are becoming more and more synonymous with the appellation “of hybrid origin.” Certainly it is true that the really strong-growing, disease-resistant varieties of lilies on the market are invariably of hybrid ancestry.
The opposite is demonstrated all too clearly by the true tiger lily, which exhibits symptoms of virus disease in its striped foliage and often even in its flowers. The old-fashioned Madonna lilies are more and more subject to fungus diseases, largely because of a virus-weakened condition. Even the stocks of regal lily are no longer as vigorous and fine as I remember them from years past. Al! three of these lilies have now been surpassed by stronger, healthier and prettier lilies of hybrid origin.
Let us see what lily growers have done with these three popular garden types.
The Madonna lily – Lilium candidum
The Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) is the oldest cultivated garden plant in the world (grown for over 3,400 years). The Cascade Strain, Botanically speaking, is not of hybrid origin. Yet, it did come from widely divergent selections made in different foreign countries where the parent stock has been grown for so many years that the lilies act and look like different species. First grown in large quantities from seed, then reselected down to only six plants front which a large stock has been built up through vegetative means, the Cascade Strain is free from diseases and strongly resistant to them.
True hybrids between this strain and other species such as Lilium chalcedonicum have been developed.
Tiger Lily Hybrids
The tiger has been combined with the candlestick lilies to produce a race of hybrids that have fine color, hardiness, resistance to drought or excess rain and to heat or cold in a greater degree than either of the parents. Especially is this true of color, for the hybrids have a vibrant quality that gives many an arresting beauty.
The tiger lily hybrids, are fully described in current bulb catalogs, so there is no need to list them here, although the freckled faces and lovely center eyes of outward-facing ones beg for special mention, while the upright-flowering types beckon to sun and butterflies with richly colored cups and bawls.
Of the third favorite, the ubiquitous regal lily, nothing but good has been said for years. When well grown from good bulbs, it is still a lovely lily. Yet, many years of undiscriminating mass production with emphasis on rapid bulb growth rather than on beauty of flower have caused all too apparent deterioration.
Seed is raised only from the best plants, with pyramidal flower heads and good color. To extend the season the trumpet lilies were crossed with the later-flowering Lilium sargentiae to produce the lovely Green Mountain Hybrids.
Without ever exceeding 55 degrees during the winter months we have lilies in flower from February on. In May the first varieties open in the fields, to be followed by an ever-changing show until late October or November. What other plant family gives such a long flowering season? In fact, what else is there with the fragrance, the beauty, the nobility and the purity of our hardy garden lilies? Admittedly I’m prejudiced, but to me they seem the perfect choice for a garden hobby.