Plant Now: Lilies

Lily Tiger Edition

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.

Lilium varieties
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. 

Asiatic lilies
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.

Trumpet lilies
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
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.

LA hybrids
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

Local garden centres have a good range in stock. Or try specialist nurseries, such as Lilyfields Mt Somers and GardenPost.

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.




  1. I have the 3 main types of lillies that have been in pots for 3-4 years and they did not flower as well last season. When I repot how do I treat the new little bulbs?

  2. Hi Jane,
    Im a big fan of the regale lilly or “christmas lilly” and decided to purchase some bulbs this year. I have heard that christmas lillys dont flower the first year. Is there any truth in this? I bought about 8 bulbs and im not seeing any buds on any of them.

    • Hi Shazz
      It depends on the bulbs you get really. Most bulbs sold in the shops are mature bulbs, so they should flower the first year. However, if they’re immature bulbs, or small bulbs, it may take a couple of years.

  3. esmebathgate says:

    I bought an oriential lilly called swetheart have looked on google for colour does anyone no what colour it is as there are several with the same name

    • Hi Esme
      There is a double Oriental lily called Sweetheart that has deep pink flowers with freckles. There is also an Orienpet lily (a cross between Oriental and Trumpet lilies) which has yellow flowers with a red centre. It might be one of these. Jane

  4. Hi jane,
    I got given 100+ Christmas lily bulbs about 3 years ago ( from someone who use to grow them for cut flowers) , and for 3 years now they have not done well, i think the best I’ve gotten was 2 buds and around 40cm hight on a couple. We believe we have them in the perfect spot and give them bulb food once or twice a year. Could it be that they didn’t like being moved? or that we need to give them extra food? Any advice would be great as we don’t want them going to waste!

    • Were these bulbs already producing flowers? If they were immature bulbs they may not have been big enough yet to produce adequate flowers. Or if the flowers were cut right to the base of the stem, they would not have had a chance to restore nourishment to the bulb. When cutting flowers, you should leave about two-thirds of the stem in place until they die down. Lilies develop their flowers for the next year from energy provided through the leaves this year. After flowering, feed once again, and continue to water until all the foliage has died back. Then remove old stems.
      Viruses can attack bulbs, as can bulb fly, so check for any sign of disease or damage.
      Bulbs can also be stressed after transplanting, delaying flowering for a year or too.

  5. Sue Turnbull says:

    I grow my Orientals in pots, and have changed the potting mix after 2 years. This year some of them grew 50% taller than last year, but had only about 3-4 flower from each bulb. How often do I need to repot them. I presume I fed them until the leaves and the stems die down in the winter.

    Would they naturalise if I planted them in the garden, The soil is pretty pumicy and dry and we have cold winters, frosts but no snow, in Tokoroa.

    • Hi Sue. You may have more nitrogen in your soil than other nutrients. In pots, it’s a good idea to add a slow-release fertiliser in spring, and another lot just before flowering. Alternatively, you can feed your plants with a tomato fertiliser during summer to ensure good flowers. You can judge the nutrient level available to your plants by the foliage colour. If the leaves are dull (rather than a rich green) the plant is probably not receiving enough food.That’s a good time to whip out the tomato fertiliser. The stems and leaves will die back after flowering. That’s the time to cut them back. Yes, your plants will naturalise in the garden. The soil needs to be free-draining, which it is, but you also need to provide plenty of water. As your soil is on the dry side you will need to maintain a good watering regime in spring and summer.

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