From wild to cultivated lilies

Well-known lilies

Many have sung the praise of roses and lilies. Both flowers arouse people’s emotion and touch their soul. While the rose – whether white, red, or pink – is considered as the flower of love and affection, the lily, particularly the white lily, is the flower of innocence, purity, and chastity. Since the early Middle Ages the lily has been the attribute of many saints, but particularly of the Virgin Mary. Many artists have also depicted the lily when painting the Virgin Mary.

There are five lilies commonly grown in our gardens.

The first is the white Madonna Lily, Lilium candidum. It grows in many a garden comer, neglected for years, and yet every time June turns into July it regularly produces immaculate white blooms. It is often found in old-fashioned gardens, planted in rows along the paths, and during the flowering period its scent pervades the whole garden.

The Fire Lily, Lilium bulbiferum, usually has also to be satisfied with a corner of the garden. In June the flower buds develop into clusters of saucer-shaped blooms of mandarin-red. No rose, no carnation can compete with these gaily coloured flowers. This prolific lily produces ever bigger and thicker patches of glorious colour each year.

The native Turk’s Cap, Lilium martagon, is by comparison a rather modest bloom, well known only to the initiated. Pharmacists, naturalists, and mountain-climbers value the beauty and individuality of this lily, which is usually concealed beneath hedges and undergrowth and which flourishes in mountainous country at heights varying from low wooded slopes up to the middle ranges. It prefers calcareous soil, or at least calcareous subsoil. To stumble upon it growing wild, with its dull, rose, panicled blooms, under beech trees or among viburnum or buckthorn, is a rare pleasure: one plant may be densely spotted, the next a little less so, and finally one will find a completely clear pink flower. This lily was already well known during the Middle Ages, principally on account of its yellow bulb, and was much sought after for its medicinal properties.

The Tiger Lily, Lilitim tigrinum, originally came from China and Japan. It is a robust, strong, and healthy plant, full of vigour, which, during August, produces a great number of salmon-orange-coloured, strongly recurved, nodding flowers, marked with large, chocolate-brown spots. The black, spherical objects in its leaf axils are intriguing. They are bulbils, which eventually fall to the ground and in turn produce roots and leaves – a marvellous method of reproduction. Were it not for these axil bulbils, the Tiger Lily would eventually cease to exist, as it does not set seed.

The fifth lily also originated in China: Liliuni regale, the Regal Lily. First discovered in 1903, its beauty helped it to achieve rapid popularity. It bears white, funnel-shaped flowers with a yellow throat, on elegant, long stems, with fine, grass-like leaves. Its heavy fragrance pervades the air on a still evening.

Geographical distribution of wild lilies

In these five lilies alone, there is considerable variation, not only in shape, growing habit, and colour, but also in soil and climatic preferences.

Only when we realize that the genus has approximately 100 species (this is not to mention the many colour variations), and that it flourishes in climates ranging from the temperate zone of the Northern Hemisphere to the subtropical regions, however, do we begin to appreciate what a tremendous variety of shape, colour, and condition the lily offers. It grows equally well in Europe, Asia, Japan, North America, and Canada.

The Turk’s Cap, L. martagon, has the widest distribution in Europe, which has only few lilies. It is found in central Europe – stretching as far as Italy and Greece to the south and south-east, but just missing the North Sea coast – north-western France, the Iberian peninsula, and England. It spreads eastwards through the whole of Russia to Mongolia and up to the Amur.

The Fire Lily, L. bulbiferum, extends from mid-Europe to the south of Italy, where at one time it was a common weed on farmland. ‘ The bright-red L. pomponium is confined to a small area of the Maritime Alps, while L. pyrenaicum has been driven back to a tiny section of the French Pyrenees.

L. camiolicum is found in the Balkan countries, and the similar L. chalcedonicum and L. heldreichii are confined to Greece.

The home of L. candidum, the white Madonna Lily, seems to have been in Asia, the Lebanon, and northern Greece. Its original location is now difficult to establish, as this lily was for long cultivated for its medicinal value throughout the Middle East. Its subsequent spread into northern Europe was undoubtedly assisted by the Romans and later the Crusaders.

Of approximately 62 lily species found growing in Asia, some reach as far north as the 60th Parallel, while the most southerly is L. neilgherreuse along the 10th Parallel in India. Many Japanese lilies grow on the coast. In the Himalayas lilies can be seen at elevations of up to 13,000 feet.

The yellow-flowering L. monadelphum and L. szovitsianum grow in the Caucasus, in addition to other species within a limited range. A much wider distribution is enjoyed by the orange-yellow saucer lily, L. dauricum, found throughout Russia from Altai to Siberia and reaching as far as the Japanese islands. The fine and delicate L. pumihun, with its sealingwax-red Turk’s Cap flowers, ranges from Lake Baykal through Manchuria to China. By far the greatest number of lily species occur in the Himalayas and in the monsoon-swept mountain ranges of Burma and west China, including the provinces of Yunnan and Szechwan. Fortunately, still more lily species have been discovered in these regions during the last few decades, and so have provided fresh material for lily hybridization.

The Turk’s Cap L. polyphyllum, with its greenish, creamy-white blooms, and also L. ivallichiamim, with slender but wide, open trumpets, grow in the west Himalayas. The pea-green-flowcred L. nepalense and the delicate L. oxypetalum are found at heights from 10,000 to 13,000 feet in the central Himalayas. In a small area where the River Brahmaputra breaks through the Himalayas flourishes the deep-pink, Martagon-flowered L. wardii. Frank KingdonWard first discovered this lily, as he also discovered L. inacklitiiae, which only grows on one particular mountain, in Burma, during 1946. His most outstanding find, again in Burma, was the apple-green L. arboricola, a small lily which grows on trees.

A veritable El Dorado for lilies are the deep, north-t0-south running valleys of the Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong and Yangtze Rivers, flanked by mountains which in the Yunnan and Szechwan provinces of China are regularly swept by southerly monsoons. Many lilies grow in this area: L. amoenutn, the variable L. bakeriantim, the tall L. davidii with the graceful L. willmottiae, L. duchartrei with its marble-white Turk’s Cap trumpets, L.fargesii, the dainty L. henrici, L. lankongense with its delicate, pink, Turk’s Cap flowers, the rare black-purple L. papilliferum at heights of 10,000 feet, the single-flowered L. paradoxum, the very variable, greenish-yellow L. primulinum, the almost unknown L. semper-viuoideutn, the magnificent sulphur-yellow trumpet lily L. sulphureuni, the small and scarce L. stewartiaiiuin, and the scented, white-flowered, purple-speckled L. taliense. In the dry regions of two of the Szechwan valleys grow L. regale and L. sargentiae, both first discovered by E. H. Wilson in 1903. Along the Yangtze in central China grow the majestic L. hetiryi, and L. concolor with its star-shaped flowers.

L. brownii is found round Hong Kong, and L. tsingtauense was named after the place of its first discovery – Tsingtao. The lilac-flowered L. cernuum is native to Korea and Manchuria, as are the brilliant red L. amabile, the small-flowered, brick-red L. callosum, and L. hansonii, sister to L. martagon, and the Korean yellow Turk’s Cap and small-flowered L. distichum.

L. philippinense grows on the steep mountain ranges of Luzon, one of the Philippine Islands. The similar L.formosamun is found at heights of up to 12,000 feet in Formosa in a variety of different forms.

The Japanese islands are the home of several of the most beautiful lilies. L. longifloruin, the Easter Lily, comes from the Ryukyu Islands, where two other scarce lilies are also found – L. alexandrae and L. nobilissimum.

Japan is the home of some of the finest lilies of all, such as L. auratum, the Golden-Rayed Lily of Japan, and the equally marvellous L. speciosum with its many varieties. Two other Japanese lilies are the pink-flowered

L. ntbelluni and L.japonicum. L. tigrinum and L. leichtliuii also come from Japan; L. tigrinum bulbs are specially grown, cultivated, and eaten by the Japanese as a delicacy. The northern main island of Honshu is the home of L. dauricum and L. maaiiatum, both cup-shaped types. A new discovery, L. biikozanense, has only been found on one particular mountain north of

Tokyo. The Martagon type L. medeoloides, known as the Wheel Lily, grows in almost every part of Japan.

On the other side of the Pacific, the lily has the following main areas of distribution in North America: the Pacific coast of Canada, and the states of Washington, Oregon, and California in the United States. L. columbianum is widespread in the north. Both bog and dry-land lilies are distributed in Oregon and California. The bog types grow near the coast, where there is a high frequency of precipitation. They are easily recognized by their rhizomatous bulbs, which often take the form of a simple longish rhizome, and grow chiefly in very damp situations along streams and rivers. To this group belong: L. pardalinwn, L. harrisianum, L. kelleyanum, L. maritimuni, L. nevadense, L. occidentale, L. parvuni, L. pitkinense, L. shastense, L. volhneri, and L. wigginsii. The dry-land type grow from the conventional lily bulb and prefer the dry, stony soils of the landward side of the mountains, where precipitation is less frequent. The dry-land varieties are: L. bolanderi, L. humboldtii, L. kelloggii, L. ocellatum, L. parryi, L. nibescens, and L. washingtoniannm.

The American cup lily, L. philadelphicum, grows throughout the vast North American region from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic and from the lakes at the Canadian frontier southwards to a point where the Mississippi and the Missouri join. This is the second distribution area in North America. It is also in this last area that L. canadense and the related L. michiganense grow.

L. grayi, L. michauxii, L. catesbaei, and L. iridollac are found in a third distribution area stretching from the south-east of the United States to Florida.

Soil and environment of wild lilies

Lilies like L. martagon and L. carnioliaim grow on calcareous soils, while L. longiflorum even grows on the coral reefs of the Japanese islands; by contrast, the Golden-Rayed Lily of Japan flourishes best in very poor volcanic ash and lava. L. dauriaim, L. pumihim, L. concolor are found on the Russian-Manchurian steppes, while L. riibellum and L. japonicnm love to grow among the roots of bamboo and rhododendron, as their shelter keeps the soil damp. L. snlphiirciim, L. primnlinum, L. bakeriannm, and L. nepalense flourish on the monsoon mountain ranges of Burma and on the southern side of the Himalayas, where they are subjected to almost daily cloudbursts during June and July and buried by deep snow from around Christmas until March or April.

The bog-type lilies of the American Pacific coast prefer to have their rhizomes in acid, damp ground, even in sphagnum bogs, as opposed to the dry-land type, which favour hard, dry and stony soils.

There are many lilies which grow at sea level – L. longiflorum, L. nobilissimum, and L. alexandrae, for instance – and lilies such as L. papilliferum and L. stewartianum grow under Alpine conditions at heights of 10,000-12,000 feet. Lilies like L. martagon reach as far north as the 6oth Parallel, L. philippinense to the 16th Parallel, and L. neilgherrense as far south as the ioth Parallel.

The area covered by individual lilies varies widely. L. martagon spans Europe from the west right across to the extreme east; L. philadelphicum reaches from the Rocky Mountains across the American continent to the Pacific. Other lilies, by contrast, are confined to small, isolated areas: L. mackliuiae grows only on one mountain in Burma, and L. pitkitieuse is restricted to a very small area, a bog on the Californian coast.

The difficulties of planting wild lilies

There are only a few wild lilies which grow well under every condition, even if given the most careful treatment; the majority demand individual and specific combinations of soil, weather, rainfall, frost, environment, companion plants, shade and sun – all of which in their various combinations have provided the correct conditions for wild lilies for thousands of years. Under such difficult circumstances it is always the specialist grower who is the most successful, and not surprisingly the amateur has had many failures, particularly following the rapid spread of plant disease. Considering that Japan annually exports four million bulbs of L. auratum and L. speciosum, Europe and North America ought by now to have vast areas of lilies under cultivation. But in fact the great majority of these imports cither succumb to fusarium during their first year or, as often happens, they are killed by virus diseases during the following years. Another very important reason for the poor acclimatization of these beautiful lilies is the long distance they have to travel before they reach the customer; first, bulbs have to wait weeks for transport, then they travel by rail to the docks, from there by ship to the port of destination, and once again by train to the bulb merchant’s store, before finally reaching the gardener. As the lily’s bulb lacks the protective skin of the tulip and the hyacinth, it soon dries out, and roots wilt and die. Such bulbs rarely succeed in the long term, particularly when delays during their long journey necessitate late planting, which makes further root development impossible for that season. The bulbs may grow well in the spring, and possibly even flower, but the absence of roots makes it impossible for them to absorb and store the necessary food reserves which are vital if they are to survive for another year. As a result, they become exhausted in one summer, and die off.

Breeding overcomes cultural difficulties

That these difficulties have now been largely overcome is due to the efforts of several parties: the breeders who, by crossing difficult species, have created the hybrid lilies of today; the horticulturists who tested and perfected new propagation methods; the scientists who have learned to recognize diseases, and found and produced antidotes for them; the distributors who have improved their packing methods with the aid of new materials, and who have instituted speedier transport which makes possible in hours what was previously impossible in days.

Let us imagine two lilies, one which prefers calcareous, high pH soils and another which does best under less alkaline, lower pH conditions. If they are transposed, or if their individual soil requirements are changed, they will fail or succumb to disease; but if these two lilies can be successfully crossed, their seedlings will behave in accordance with Mendelian segregation. Not only will the seedlings possess outward differences in shape and colour of flower and leaf, but the parents’ individual preferences for alkaline or acid soil will combine to produce a plant which will grow equally well in either or both types of soil.

Another example: if a cross between L. auratum, the Golden-Rayed Lily of Japan, with L. henryi were successful, the resulting plants, inheriting the virtues of both parents, should have the beauty of the Golden-Rayed Lily of Japan and the robustness of L. henryi. Such a cross would produce lilies capable of growing in any temperate climate and in all types of soil, particularly as L. auratum prefers the less alkaline soils and an extreme maritime climate with dry winters, while the exceptionally robust L. henryi grows well on lime and sandstone in the continental climate of central China. Furthermore, the fact of being a hybrid would give it both stamina and vigour. This would produce lilies which could be grown without difficulty in nearly every soil and in every temperate climate.

Propagation and multiplication methods have also improved. Vegetative multiplication, by bulb scales, used to be the accepted method; scales were carefully broken off the bulb and kept in a warm and constantly damp atmosphere, which caused the scales to form young bulblets that developed into full-sized bulbs over the course of years. Any virus diseases present in the mother bulb were, of course, perpetuated, and fusarium also took its toll. Multiplication from seed is now especially favoured, as it provides two great benefits: virus diseases are not transmitted, while the method also brings out the variations among seedlings and so makes it possible to select only the best and most desirable plants for further seed production. Variations occur in a number of aspects: habit, shape of leaves and flowers, colour, and general structure. It is only a matter of selection to obtain the lilies with the required attributes for further propagation.

Knowledge of this kind, gained over the years not only by scientists but also by horticulturists, provides great opportunity for lily-breeders to produce new lilies for years to come.

The advantages of hybrids

Hybrid lilies have advantages which make them superior to the wild varieties. They are more vigorous, stronger, healthier, grow taller and bear more and bigger flowers. Such results are understandable when we realize that they are only achieved through constant and rigorous selection of seedlings, of which only one to five per cent ever reach the commercial stage – through failure and imperfection of one kind or another, 95-99 per cent of the material is ruthlessly discarded.

Hybrid lilies are less demanding than their parents, and grow well in a wide range of soils. They will flourish if planted among shrubs and bedding plants, and multiply and bloom more freely than their parents; nor is there any need for specially enriched soils or sheltered positions. Climate, too, is of less importance, for it is always possible, by means of careful observation, to select a lily suitable for a particular environment from the many and varied crosses.

The crossing of and selection for disease-resistant hybrids is, of course, similar. Lilies susceptible to fusarium are crossed with varieties less prone to this disease; rigorous selection of the resulting seedlings follows, and only those which have inherited fusarium resistance from one parent and at the same time retained the qualities of the other parent are kept. Disease resistance is of the utmost importance, and the first essential consideration in deciding if a plant is worth growing; with the single exception ofL. x testaceuin, all hybrid crosses of the last century have succumbed to disease.

It is now possible to plant lilies in our gardens which grow well and flower satisfactorily – not only for just one season but for year after year. There are lilies for every purpose, for planting in beds with perennials, or in front of shrubberies, or in woods. There are dainty lilies suitable for rock-gardens and others which grow as tall as a man, pushing their flowering heads through shrubs and the branches of trees. Lilies for damp situations and for growing in the shade, lilies for sunny, dry beds along stone walls, lilies which do not suffer from the sun, which in fact flourish best when exposed to it – all are available. There are lilies, too, for growing in pots or tubs, to be displayed at garden entrances, on terraces and indoors. By careful management these magnificent flowers can be in bloom as early in the season as Easter.

As flowers for cutting they are incomparable, and last for as long as 14 days, an ever-changing picture as each bud opens. With their vivid colours, lilies make an excellent decoration for modern houses.

A revolution, the end of which is not yet in sight, is taking place in the lily world; a revolution which we are witnessing, through which we are living and in which we can take part.

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