For a fragrant and luxurious treat, you can’t go wrong with lilies. These summer flowers are among the loveliest bulbs, with their elegant, trumpet-shaped blooms that are spectacularly showy in the garden and long-lasting in a vase. There are hundreds of varieties to choose from and the bulbs are in garden centres now. They require chilling for flower development in summer, so the cool ground between May and September is the perfect time for planting. But get them in the ground as soon as you bring them home. Lily bulbs have no outer papery layer so they’re prone to drying out.
There are three main types that are commonly available in shops. Asiastic lilies, Trumpet lilies and Oriental lilies. Asiatics are the first to flower from late November or December, but their showy blooms are unscented. Trumpet lilies are next, just in time for Christmas. Then come the Orientals, sometimes from December but usually January to March.
Asiatics are used widely in the cut flower industry. They are exceptionally hardy and come in some of the brightest oranges, yellows and brick-reds. They were once limited to these colours, but a few paler shades are now available, including pink and cream. Blooms are usually upward facing, which is why florists love them (apart from their bold colours), though some are pendant. They don’t, however, have a scent.
The blooms of Trumpet lilies, as their name suggests, have a distinct trumpet shape. They come in many shades, are fragrant and cold-hardy as well as tolerant of summer temperatures of 30degC. Lilium regale is the best-known Trumpet, with white petals that are shaded rose-pink on the outside. It’s deliciously fragrant, perfuming the air at Christmas-time, hence it’s often called Christmas lily.
The regale lily grows around 1.2m high and can carry as many as 30 blooms per plant. My neighbour planted one a few years back, and in its first year she counted 27 flowers.
The flowers of Lilium longiflorum, known as the Easter lily overseas, are pure white on stalks about 1m high. It makes a great container specimen, often sold as such in garden centres, and it, too, is wonderfully fragrant.
Oriental lilies are spectacular plants, with colours ranging from white through to pinks and deep burgundy reds – my favourites. They have a sensational scent, although it can sometimes be overpowering when brought indoors. There are no oranges in Oriental hybrids, and yellow appears only in the centre of the bloom. Early on, Orientals were susceptible to diseases, but recent breeding has produced disease-resistant hybrids. In fact, a New Zealand professor at Massey University, J S Yeates, was instrumental in breeding healthy Orientals. His best-known hybrid is ‘Journey’s End’, which was introduced in 1957 and is now sold the world over. It has crimson-pink blooms, and it’s said to be a favourite of TV celebrity Martha Stewart.
Y S Yeates was also the first to breed dwarf Orientals, so Oriental lily varieties range in height from 60cm to well over 2m. Even the taller varieties grow well in containers, but it would be best to stake them, as strong winds will flatten them.
It is often said that Orientals are difficult to grow in warm, humid areas, but I have no problem growing them in my Auckland garden where they remain disease-free and bloom year after year.
This type of lily was introduced onto the market in 1992. It’s a cross between Longiflorum and Asiatic lilies, hence ‘LA’. They were bred for the cut flower market, to produce hardy, long-lasting flowers, some with fragrance and all disease-resistant. They multiply quickly, so they’re a great plant for the home garden.
Orientpets (often called Oriental Trumpets)
These are hybrids between Orientals and Trumpets and do well in areas that are too warm for Orientals to thrive. They also grow well in cool areas. They are fragrant and come in many colours, blooming three to four weeks after the Asiatics.
Planting your lilies
Bulbs are either sold in packs or can be found loose in bins of sawdust. When selecting bulbs, avoid those that are dry or damaged.
Plant in a light, humus-rich soil in sun to light shade. Although they like moist soil, it must be free-draining – bulbs won’t survive water-logging. While they also like their head in the sun, they prefer a cool root run, so mulch well in spring.
Dig in plenty of compost before planting to raise the humus content and to increase water retention. If you have clay soil, plant in raised beds or containers for better drainage.
The usual planting depth is about twice the size of the bulb, around 10cm below the soil surface. During spring, feed your plants with blood and bone.
For bringing indoors, cut stems when the first flower is fully coloured but not yet open. When they do open, you might like to pluck off the stamens to avoid getting the bright yellow pollen on carpets or clothing.
Where to buy
Pictured: ‘Tiger Edition’ is brand-new Oriental lily with a scent to die for. It has soft pink petals and vibrant pink and red veins and speckles. From GardenPost.