Lilies are true bulbs that grow throughout the Northern Hemisphere. They are generally hardy throughout the United States and southern Canada.
Most horticulturists divide lilies into five groups: Asiatic lilies, Oriental lilies, Tiger lilies, Trumpet lilies, and Turk's Cap lilies. Many home gardeners are confused about the differences between Asiatic and Oriental lilies. Both groups are easy to grow in the home garden.
Asiatic lilies are native to Central and Western Asia and have been cultivated in gardens for more than 3,000 years. Some Asiatic lilies are referred to as Asiatic Hybrids because they are crosses with North American lilies. The Asiatics have the broadest range of colors available in lilies, with blooms in all shades of yellow, orange, pink, red and white, as well as bi-colors. Asiatics grow 2 to 4 feet tall and have flowers 4 to 6 inches across. They are rarely fragrant. Asiatics usually bloom in late May or early June and stay in flower for 2 or 3 weeks.
Oriental lilies are hybrids between two types of Japanese lilies, Lilium auratum and Lilium speciosum. The cross was made in 1869 by American horticulturist Francis Parkman. These August bloomers grow up to 6 feet tall and have huge flowers that can be as much as 12 inches across. They are highly fragrant, particularly at night. Orientals come in shades of white, pink and red, and often have raised spots on the inside of the petals called papilliae. The two most famous varieties of Oriental lilies are the dark pink Stargazer and the huge, white Casablanca.
Asiatic and Oriental Lily Culture
Asiatic lilies are sun-loving bulbs, so plant them where they will get at least 5 or 6 hours of sun per day. Plant them 4 to 6 inches apart with the bottom of the bulb 8 inches below soil level. They will grow in USDA Zones 3 and 4 with winter mulch protection and in Zones 5 to 9 without mulch. Like all lilies, they need excellent drainage, particularly in the winter, but be sure they get adequate moisture during the growing season. They can be planted in spring or fall.
Oriental lilies should only be planted in the spring. Space them 4 to 6 inches apart and 8 inches deep (to the bottom of the bulb) in fertile, well-drained soil. It is especially important that they have good drainage in the winter. They are hardy from USDA Zones 5 and 6 with winter protection to Zones 7 to 9 without. The taller types may need staking; it is best to insert the stake when planting to avoid accidentally piercing the bulb. Orientals do best when partially shaded, especially from the hot afternoon sun.
Feed lilies with a general fertilizer with a 1-2-1 ratio or with a special bulb fertilizer in early spring and again 2 months later.
Propagate both types of lilies by removing the small bulbs that form around the base of the main bulb or by removing the bulbils (small bulbs) that sometimes appear in the leaf axils after flowering. These small bulbs will flower in 2 or 3 years. Propagation is best done in the fall.
Using Lilies in the Garden
Asiatics can be planted in masses in the middle of flower gardens, since they are a good transition height between low growers in the front and taller plants in the back. They are good companion plants for early roses.
Orientals are so tall that they are best used as accent plants toward the rear of flower beds, where the plants in front of them will hide their tall stems and stakes. Be sure to plant them near windows and patios so you can enjoy their fragrance.
Lilies can be poisonous to household pets, so use them with caution in flower beds accessible to dogs and cats.
Lilies in Popular Culture
White lilies have long symbolized purity and chastity in many cultures, although in medieval times they were also a symbol of female sexuality. Lilies were so loved by the Greeks that they thought the flowers sprang from the milk of the goddess Hera. Christians associate lilies with the Virgin Mary, and to the Chinese, they symbolize summer and abundance. Lilies are popular for funerals because they symbolize for many the restored innocence of the soul after death.
Lilies are the birth flower for those born in May.