Lilies entice nose, eye, and mind with rich perfume, gracious flaring blooms, and archaic origins (as monocots, their forbears belong to the oldest tribe of flowering plants, reaching far back into the fossil era.) Plump bulbs provide vigor even in droughty circumstance. When happily sited, they blossom and multiply for years, carefree save for a heave-preventing mulch from first freeze to spring. With careful attention to bloom period, one variety can cede to the next in continuous display from early summer through fall. Mingle them with perennials (a flutter of white gaura, or campanula persicifolia alba, perhaps), or leave them pristine. Hummingbirds come to sip their nectar.
Most recent hybrids tend to blur ubiquitously: large, upward facing, rigid, stocky, scentless, differing from one another only in tint. I prefer species lilies and the old breeds most evocative of childhood memories and painted tableaux. Each presents a distinctive stance, or dynamic, or handsome pyramid of bobbing Turks’ caps. For a New England garden into which frost intrudes, these are my favorites for a full season run:
Red Velvet (1964) a moody red stalwart, one of the first to come forward early summer (for me, May or early June)
Mrs. R.O. Backhouse (1921) dainty stack of shy, apricot pink, recurved blossoms, darkly freckled. always surprises me early summer by popping up among the new hosta leaves
Regal Lily (L. regale, come upon wild in Szechuan, 1905) a treasure of our mothers’ gardens. lushly fragrant, multiple large white trumpets with gold at the throat, flaring outward in every direction on the stem (early summer)
White Henryi (1945) white strap-like petals with gold spilling from the throat, spotted with sienna . cleanly elegant. (mid-summer)
Black Beauty (1957) individual blooms resembling Rubrums, a shade smaller and more explosively curved, but massed into a spectacular tower of 15 or more individuals atop a 4’ stem. darkly freckled, petals flushed deep rose red and edged in white, green throat, boldly projecting stamens. tough as nails (mid-summer, late august for me)
Rubrum Lily (L. speciosum ‘Rubrum’, from Japan, 1830) the glorious, richly scented, late season bookend to L. regale, dear too from our mothers’ time. recurved petals with broad, red-pink central stripes and freckles, and raised sparklers at the throat (late summer, end August into September for me)
With great regret I’ve given up trying to grow Madonna lilies (L.candidum). Pure white, enormous, deeply imbedded in Western consciousness since Medieval times as symbol of the Virgin, Madonnas presided with pristine grandeur in the Chicago garden of my youth. Perhaps our New England soil is too sour, or bulbs nowadays compromised. I miss Lycoris squamigera (Surprise Lily) too, not a true lily of course, but so mysterious throwing up its leaves early season, disappearing, then blasting forth pale pink trumpets on long stems from nowhere in August. Is our Northeastern season too short for them, does it not heat sufficiently?.
Perhaps you’ve noticed the omission here of any orange contenders? I’m a bit squeamish at the yellowy end of the spectrum. None the less, the best of them, sunny and good natured, surely lights up certain spots:
Tiger Lily (L. lancifolium ‘Splendens’ or L. tigrinum, 1804) beloved, orange freckled tomboy that expands all over the garden and woods’ edge, invited or not. tall, boisterous, with a bushy surround of slender horizontal leaves. Tigers range so widely in America, it’s hard to believe they’re not native, but rather the first lilies imported from Asia. Hummingbirds dock at the luscious nectaries located midway down each petal’s curve.
Lilium supurbum (1665) scattered naturally in moist American meadows from the deep South clear up to Massachusetts, a cheerful pyramid of many hanging little Turk’s caps atop a five foot stalk,
Leopard Lily (L. pardalinum, 1848) a lively California character with yellow splashed from its throat
Bulbs survive only by keeping the continuum growing, generation after generation. Apparently, large Dutch firms now provide 99% of all bulbs in trade, understandably focusing more on demand, cost, and horticultural ease than on genetic variety and subtle attributes such as perfume, eccentricity, or historical authenticity. Old House Gardens in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a marvelous source from whom I acquired all the above, typifies a special group of horticultural watchdogs that keep a continuous eye on old gems fallen aside or newly re-discovered. They favor small growers all over the States and abroad to propagate much of their heritage stock in varied conditions, or in small lots not viable for the big guys. Additionally, they mine special caches: rare tulips perpetuated by the Hortus Bulborum in northern Holland; hyacinths saved from old gardens behind the Iron Curtain; lovely glads conserved by the Old-Timers Guild of the North American Gladiolus Council. We gardeners form a necessary and pleasurable part of the chain, by our purchases and support of dedicated providers such as these, and by perpetuating cherished bulbs in our own soil types, climates and aesthetic settings.