The history of lilies

Sagas, fairy talcs, and legends have mentioned the lily since earliest times. Archaeologists have found pictorial and sculptured evidence of L. candidum, native of the Mediterranean region. It is also mentioned in the Bible, to it was attributed medicinal virtues, and oil extracted from its bulb and flowers was used to heal burns and other wounds.

L. cnndidiim and various irises were depicted in frescoes at King Minos’ Palace in Crete in about 1500 BC, and are now in the Heraklion Museum. A lily bulb has been found buried with an Egyptian mummy. A wall picture of very naturally presented lilies dating back to 700 BC was found in the palace of King Assurbanipal at Nineveh.

Wc know that L. caudidwn grew wild on the Palestine coast, and it is therefore not surprising that it receives several mentions in the Bible. The lily was also pictorially and sculpturally depicted on ceramics in Greece and associated with the goddesses Aphrodite, Artemis, and Hera; so, too, with the Roman goddesses Diana, Venus, and Juno. Pliny pronounced the lily as the noblest of all flowers. The Romans used it for stuffing their pillows and perfuming their baths – siisimi was their name for lily oil. The word is thought to bc derived from the old Syrian sasa, or from the Hebrew susan. The girl’s name ‘ Susan’ means lily.

The white lily was probably brought over the Alps by the Romans; Abbot Wahlafried Strabo of the Benedictine Abbey of Rcichenau likened it to a rose as early as 840 in his Hortulus. Still later, the Crusaders returned with lily bulbs from Syria and Palestine. The white lily, at one time the attribute of the Greek and Roman goddesses, is today the symbol of innocence, purity, and chastity, and the attribute of the Virgin Mary. There is no doubt that the Church took the white lily over from the pagans. The fifth- and sixth-century early Christian mosaics at Ravenna show several early examples of the white lily.

The number of pictures of the Annunciation of both the Gothic and Renaissance periods showing the white lily is countless. A 1333 picture of the Italian painter Simone Martini shows a vase of lilies in an Annunciation scene, and so, too, does a later picture by Roger van der Weyden. Sandro Botticelli, who died in 1510, shows the Madonna surrounded by eight angels, each carrying a lily. In 1436 the Dutch painter, Jan van Eyck, showed a vase of white lilies in a picture of the divine child, and in 1475 Hugo van der Goes painted a pitcher of irises, aquilcgia, and L. bulbiferum in his Adoration. The German artists Stcphan Lochner (c. 1445) and Matthias Griincwald portrayed both roses and lilies in their works, and succeeded in presenting them both true to life and botanically accurate. (72)

The lily is always used as a symbol of chastity and humility in the Christian religion, and an attribute of the Virgin Mary, St John the Baptist, St Francis of Assisi, and St Anthony of Padua.

The old herbal books dating from the Middle Ages invariably ascribed medicinal properties to plants, and Hicronymus Bock’s book of 1547 was no exception. He recommended a brew of flowers and bulbs for regaining consciousness and which could also be used to alleviate inflamed livers and ease labour pains.

He also recommends that the oil extracted from the bulb be used in cases of inflammation, burns, and boils, as well as for varicose veins. He continues for another half page, and explains how to use lily roots and leaves to best effect. His most curious and interesting suggestion is that a mixture of honey and ashes of burnt lily bulbs rubbed into the scalp provides a cure for baldness.

The French Kings, the Valois and the Bourbons, are thought to have included the lily in their coat of arms, although it may only have been a stylized iris. Orders of chivalry were founded, most of them dedicated to the Virgin, but all with the lily as a heraldic symbol.

The white lily, L. candidum, was actually a ‘prototype’. It had, and still has, beauty, singularity and mystery; it was used for medicinal purposes, as a religious symbol, and retained many of those varied facets from earliest times through the Middle Ages to the present day.

Botanical interest only came to the fore as further lilies were discovered. The Grecian L. chalcedoiiicinn was known before 1573 and described before 1629 by John Parkinson, with L. canadense, which reached Europe from America at about the same time. In 1753, Linnaeus included it with L. pomponiiun and L. philadelphiann in his Species Phntarum.

The lilies from eastern Asia and Japan followed. E. Kaempfer wrote about L. tigrinum as early as 1712, although it was not imported until 1804. Thunberg, Linnacus’s successor at Uppsala, and von Siebold, a doctor from southern Germany, practising in Holland, imported three differently coloured L. speciosum, three varieties of L. x maculatum and L. lotigijlorum. During the nineteenth century the French missionaries David, Delavay, Farges, and Fauric investigated the flora of the Chinese provinces, and wrote about the many lilies they had collected and sent to Europe from Szcchwan, Yunnan, Kwangsi and Hupch.

Around the turn of the century, English plant collectors completed many successful and fruitful searches in the Indian states around the foot of the Himalayas, in the inhospitable mountain ranges of Burma, and in the mountainous western provinces of China. The most successful collector was the English botanist E. H. Wilson, who collected for the Arnold Arboretum in the United States. Lilies were his speciality, and his greatest discoveries were L. regale and L. sargentiae in 1904; both are described in his book The Lilies of Eastern Asia. This is a classic of lily literature, describing and classifying 40 lily species, their variations and forms, nearly all of which he had personally collected and seen growing in their natural surroundings. E. H. Wilson was also active in the field of lily classification, and instrumental in the discovery of many synonyms.

No less successful was Frank Kingdon Ward during his 24 journeys to the Himalayas, Burma, Assam, Tibet, and China. L. wardii, L. mack-liniae, and L. arboricola, which grows on trees, were all first discovered by him. The number of his books nearly equals that of his journeys; they include many marvellous, lifelike descriptions of his discoveries and expeditions. Among other successful collectors who made their discoveries in China are the Englishman George Forrest (L. stewartianwn), and the Irishman Augustine Henry (L. henryi).

Another lily enthusiast – Max Leichtlin of Baden-Baden – must not be forgotten. He collected many lilies in Japan, and later brought them to Europe.

The discovery of the American lilies is due to the work of Heinrich Bolander, who originally came from Hesse, and also to the efforts of the Englishmen M. Catcsby, Asa Gray, Benedict Roezl, Dr A. Kellogg, Dr Charles Parry, and Carl Purdy. During more recent years Dr S. L. Emsweller, Dr Albert Vollmer, Lawrence Beane and Mrs M. G. Henry have been most active. The last 20 years have seen great progress in the acquisition of additional knowledge in the field of relationship between American lilies.

Russian work was carried out by the botanist Carl Maximowicz and the Hungarian-born J. N. Szovits, who both travelled extensively in search of lilies during the nineteenth century; they covered Manchuria and Persia as well as Russia. The wild lilies they found up to the time of the First World War were all brought into cultivation by the St Petersburg nursery of Regel and Kesselring, where L. cemuum, L. callosum, L. concoior, L. kesselringianuin, and L. ponticum were introduced.

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