The lily genus offers incredible diversity with flowers of all shapes and sizes in a stunning array of colours, says Miranda Kimberley

Image: Floramedia
Image: Floramedia

Lilies are a flower that everyone knows by sight and smell. The pink 'Star Gazer' lily is a staple for florists and its blooms grace bouquets across the country. But perhaps the incredible diversity of the lily genus is less widely known. Stems start at 30cm and reach heights of more than 2m, with flowers varying in size and shape, offering a dazzling range of colours.

Lilies are divided into at least nine categories, with more species standing outside these groups. There is a lily for most situations, whether in pots or for the front or back of the border. There are even dwarfs such as L. pumilum that suit the rock garden.

The most well-known groups are the highly scented Oriental lilies and the smaller, hardier Asiatics — not fragrant but prized for their vibrantly coloured blooms. Modern hybrids of these types are very popular because they are both striking to look at and easy to grow. They can be grown in any soil, which is not always the case with lilies. Perhaps the most popular of these hybrids are the tall Oriental Trumpets, also known as "Orienpets" or tree-like lilies. These have the height of the Trumpets and the showy large flowers of the Orientals.

Lilies grow best in a sunny spot. They cope with partial shade but will not thrive in deep shade. They are very hardy but do not like winter wet, so plant them in a well-drained, fertile soil. Add plenty of organic matter before planting.

Many of the species will not tolerate an alkaline soil, including the Orientals and their double-flowered forms. It can be simpler to plant in pots because ericaceous compost can be used. You can always place the pots among covering foliage if you want them in the border. But the hybrids such as the Oriental Trumpets, Longiflorum Asiatics and Longiflorum Orientals can be grown in any soil.

The red lily beetle — a gorgeous looking thing — is the most troublesome pest. It produces larvae that feast on leaves and flowers if left unchecked. Cultural control can be effective. Pick off and destroy adults, grubs and eggs early in the season and a spray of three parts water to one part garlic is recommended. Chemical sprays with ingredients such as thiacloprid or acetamiprid can be used, but take care not to spray when in flower to avoid harming bees and other pollinators.

The RSPCA notes that all parts of lilies can be fatal to cats, including the flower, leaves and pollen. Cat owners who want to grow lilies should go for the pollen-free, double-flowered Oriental types such as the Roselily or Lotus Series.

For those planning a wedding, L. 'Miss Lucy' PBR comes highly recommended from Harts Nursery. With its lovely fragrance and without stamen, it can be carried in a bridal bouquet without any danger of staining the dress.

What the specialists say

Jonathan Hart, co-owner,
Harts Nursery, Staffordshire

"There are so many wonderful lilies to grow and a lot of work goes into developing new varieties. We have our own breeding programme and we also work alongside other breeders to create new lilies. We
look for hybrid varieties that can be grown in any soil. Lilies are easy to grow but do like good drainage.

"The Oriental Trumpets are the most popular category. One of this type, 'Nymph', is by far our current best seller, with its pale colour and unusual spicy scent. My favourites include Roselily Isabella, which is part of a new line of pollen-free, double-flowering Oriental lilies. The colours and fragrance are stunning.

"'Pink Flavour' is an impressive Asiatic lily that produces an abundance of downward-facing flowers. 'Landini' has majestic red/black buds that open to reveal a dramatic dark Asiatic lily. 'Lankon' is a unique hybrid with trumpet-shaped blooms speckled with a stunning purple. It almost looks as though it has been spray painted.

"As a general rule, it is the Oriental lilies that are highly scented. When these varieties are hybridised with Trumpet or Longiflorum lilies, they produce a much sweeter fragrance. Asiatic lilies are not scented at all but some people prefer these for their vibrant colours.

"All lilies are easy to grow in the right conditions. For people new to growing lilies who may not be aware of their soil type, we advise Oriental Trumpets, Longiflorum Asiatics and Longiflorum Orientals because they grow in any soil."

Richard Hyde, co-owner,
HW Hyde & Son, Berkshire

"Lilies make good garden plants because of the wide range of varieties. For small gardens there are pot varieties that only grow to about 30cm tall. For larger gardens you can pick one of the monsters that can get to 3m, plus of course there are varieties that grow in between.

"Flower size varies enormously too. Some are only a couple of centimetres across while others are a huge 30cm-plus. The standout lilies this year have been from the 'Rose' Series — pollen-free double flowers with a pleasant perfume.

"My growing tips include checking which type of soil a lily needs before you buy the bulbs. Some are acid lovers. The biggest problem is red lily beetle. We pick them off and crush them, but equally you can spray with crushed garlic or cinnamon. As a last resort you can use chemicals, but these will also kill butterflies and other beneficials."

In practice

John Winterson, deputy buyer,
RHS Plant Centres

"Lilies are very popular at our centres and it is no surprise that L. regale is our top seller. Easy to grow and a wonderful fragrance from white flowers with striped backs. What more could you want from a lily?

"Our next best seller is 'Star Gazer', with its strong pink, red and white colours, and quite a contrast to
L. regale, showing how diverse our customers' tastes are. Our third best seller is L. nepalense, a wonderful species lily whose pretty green petals open out wide to reveal a large chocolate blotch in the centre — simply stunning.

"One of my favourites, which is in our top 10 best sellers, is L. 'Casa Blanca'. It flowers in mid to the end
of July and it is dripping with huge clusters of ice-white flowers with
the most intense fragrance. It is easy to grow but, as with all lilies, Cardiocrinums, Fritillarias, etc in the garden, keep your eye out for the dreaded lily beetle.

"The majority of our lilies are sold as dry bulbs, with the rest being pot-grown, sold in bud and flower. These include the Asiatic lilies and recently we have tried one called 'Maru', which is strongly scented and nice and sturdy so shouldn't require staking. This makes a great pot-full that is easy to display and sell."

Species and varieties

Asiatic lilies The hardiest types. Mostly unscented and brightly coloured, they have upward or outward facing flowers appearing from June onwards. They reach between 1ft and 5ft tall and suit pots or borders, tolerating most soils.

L. 'Delicate Joy' is a double Asiatic lily that has tropical red/pink-blushed blooms with an extra inner circle of most unusual narrow petals. It is a pollen-free type that reaches just 60cm tall and therefore suits containers and the front of borders.

Oriental Lilies These types
are highly scented and prefer an ericaceous soil, making pots a good place to plant them. Reaching 3-5ft, they produce large open blooms around July/August.

L. 'Firebolt' is the darkest Oriental lily ever to be bred. This bulb produces magnificent dark-red/burgundy flowers with a glorious scent. Plant in spring. Flowers in July/August. Needs ericaceous soil. Height: around 85cm.

Double Oriental lilies
Pollen-free plants that reach between 3ft and 5ft tall and have a beautiful fragrance. Plant them in ericaceous soil or compost.

L. 'Lotus' is a range of double-flowered oriental hybrids from top lily breeder Vletter & Den Haan. They all have a very pleasant fragrance and like a well-drained ericaceous compost.

The Roselily Series is an exciting new line of pollen-free, double-flowering Oriental lilies. They
were developed by De Looff Lily Innovation, started in 1993. Varieties include Roselily Isabella, Roselily Elena, Roselily Annika, Roselily Belonica and Roselily Natalia, with flowers in shades of pink, pale pink, white and pale green. Height:

Oriental Trumpet Lilies The result of crossing the showy Trumpet lily and the hardy Oriental lily. They have sturdy stems, each bearing up to 20 blooms and very tall at up to 8ft. Because they are lime-tolerant, they can be used in borders or containers.

L. 'Flashpoint' is a very striking Oriental trumpet hybrid lily. Its petals feature creamy yellow margins and deep-red centres. Height: around 1m.

L. 'Nymph' PBR is a striking Oriental trumpet lily featuring pale lemon yellow petals with a central hot pink stripe and a spicy cinnamon scent. Height: a dramatic 2m.

Trumpet Lilies Tall plants growing up to 8ft. They have highly fragrant, trumpet-shaped flowers facing outward or somewhat downward. These varieties are ideal for the garden border.

L. regale Award of Garden Merit (H5) is a classic trumpet lily that has large, highly fragrant, white flowers flushed with pink and a yellow throat. Height: 1.5m.

Longiflorum Lilies These feature delicately scented blooms atop tall stems. Being lime-tolerant, they are suitable for borders or pots.

L. longiflorum is a lovely species with huge white trumpet blooms that have lime-green throats, produced on tall, robust stems in midsummer. They give off a delicious freesia-like scent. Height: 1.2m.

Longiflorum Asiatic lilies Producing a wide variety of mostly scented, vibrantly coloured blooms, these can be grown in alkaline or acidic well-drained soils so they are suitable for borders or pots.

L. 'Mapira' is a stunning Longiflorum Asiatic lily with dark-burgundy blooms that are almost black in the centre. Height: 90cm.

Longiflorum Oriental lilies These have enormous blooms that are highly scented. They will tolerate most soil conditions but it must be well drained.

Martagon lilies Featuring lovely blooms with petals that are rolled and swept back, these woodlanders grow well in dappled shade in humus-rich alkaline soil. They naturalise well
and are long lived and hardy. Good varieties include the white form
L. martagon var. album, the pink-flowered L. martagon var. rubrum and the striking L. 'Claude Shride', which has mahogany red colour with gold spots. Heights: 1.2-1.8m.

L. nepalense has large, pendulous, greenish/yellow flowers with dark-reddish/purple centres. These are borne either singly or in small clusters of up to five on each stem. Found south of the Himalayas from northern India to Nepal and Bhutan, it likes cool, acid soil with good drainage. Height: 90cm.

L. 'Star Gazer' is perhaps the most popular and cultivated lily of all, mainly because it is such a highly used cut flower. It has bright-pink petals edged with white and they have a heady scent. Height: 75cm.

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