Lily: A Symbol of Life

By: Rosalie Laune - No other flower is associated with the observance of Easter more than the lily.  Its beautiful white flowers are symbolic of purity, joy, hope and life.  However, the lily was cultivated by civilizations long before it became associated with Easter and has symbolic meaning to many different religions.

The name “lily” is applied chiefly (and correctly) to any member of the genus Lilium and contains over 100 species. All are herbaceous perennials that arise from bulbs and produce large, showy flowers.  Most are native to temperate regions of the northern hemisphere.

The first mention of lily dates back about 4000 years. Ancient Egyptians revered the lily and entombed it with their dead.  The Greeks and Romans also treasured it.  According to their folklore, Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, was so jealous of the lily that she caused an elongated pistil to grow from its center, making it less attractive.

In China, the lily was used as a valuable source of food which was probably the reason it initially spread throughout Europe. During the 1800’s, the Victorian Era, European explorers introduced many new species from the orient.

The lily species used for Easter decoration today is Lilium longifolium, which is believed to have originated in Japan in at least the 17th century if not before.  Unfortunately, this species of lily is not reliably hardy in the Midwest.  Gardeners wishing to plant their Easter lily outdoors should establish it in a protected area. I personally have not had great success with them. 

However there are many garden lilies which do very well in this area. Most garden lilies planted today are hybrids that can be classified into one of three different groups:  Asiatic hybrids, Aurelian hybrids and Oriental hybrids.

The Asiatic hybrids are the earliest to flower.  They typically bloom during early summer on strong, erect stems.  The flowers tend to be more upward rather than pendulous or nodding as are the other types.  They typically reach a height of between 24 and 48 inches.

The Aurelian (trumpet) hybrids are known for their huge trumpet-shaped flowers that tend to be pendulous.   Aurelian hybrids bloom in July and August and the flowers tend to be more fragrant than the Asiatic types.  Giants of the lily world, Aurelian hybrids often reach a mature height of 60 inches or more.  Because of their tall stature, some sort of support may be needed to keep them from toppling over.

The Oriental hybrids are the latest to bloom and typically are at their showiest in August.  They display colorful and very fragrant flowers and the plants range in height from 24 to 48 inches.  The Oriental hybrids are the least tolerant of cold temperatures of three groups and, if grown at our latitude, need winter protection in order to survive.  While their somewhat tender nature might limit their popularity as a garden flower, the Oriental hybrids dominate the lily cut flower market.  Cultivars such as ‘Stargazer’, ‘Casa Blanca’ and ‘Mona Lisa’ are all quite familiar to retail floristry.

Whatever the type, garden lilies require much the same care.  All are sun-loving plants that tolerate light shade, if necessary.  Lilies prefer a fertile, well-drained garden loam.  The importance of soil drainage for the survival of bulb plants cannot be overemphasized and lilies are no exception.  If drainage is a problem, incorporate several inches of well-decomposed organic matter into the area to be planted.  

Planting depth also is very important for lilies to thrive.  Lilies develop roots along the portion of their stem that remains below the surface of the soil.  These “stem roots” are very important for both water and nutrient absorption.  Therefore, lily bulbs should be planted deep enough for adequate stem root development.  Dig a hole so that six to eight inches of soil remain above the top of the bulb after it has been covered.  Addition of bone meal to the bottom of the hole also is recommended.  Once planted, water the bulb and mulch if planting is done in the fall which is the preferred planting time for lilies.

An annual maintenance application of a general purpose fertilizer relative low in nitrogen (e.g. 5-10-5) can be made when plants start to break through the soil’s surface in spring.  Be careful not to over-fertilizer, since excessive amounts of nitrogen can lead to tall, weak stem growth.  Additionally, adequate amounts of water should be supplied and weeds eliminated.

Over the years, I’ve bought and planted numerous Asiatic lilies.  Stop by my garden this summer and enjoy looking at them.  They are quite showy. 

Excerpted from an article published by the University of Missouri, April 3, 2014