The Literary Gardener – October 2017

“Fresh tears stood on her cheeks as does the honeydew upon a gathered Lily almost withered.” ~William Shakespeare, “Titus Andronicus,” Act III, scene 1 (1594)

This passage makes it clear that Shakespeare had closely observed and appreciated the beauty of morning dew on the petals of a lily, and he also knew that the flower’s freshness does not last long. The romantic symbolism of the lily that Shakespeare develops during this scene of “Titus Andronicus” is intentionally, and shockingly, in contrast to the play’s gory theme; still, the passage represents how Shakespeare often used the silky-smooth, pure white petals of a lily (Lilium) to symbolize female beauty and elegance, as well as sweetness, innocence and purity.

In our 21st century gardens, lilies are not as fragile and difficult to grow as one might think. Indeed, with their large silky-smooth petals and deep fragrance, Oriental lilies, in particular, are beautiful additions to gardens that provide the right cultural conditions.

Lilies prefer “their heads in the sun and their feet in the shade,” so the ideal position in the garden is where they will receive morning sunshine, protection from wind, and shade from late-afternoon heat. Keep in mind that some lilies, like Oriental lilies, will grow 4-5 feet tall. Surround them with shorter plants to provide shade for the lower foliage of the lily; this help prevents the bulb from drying out.

Lilies do best in well-draining soils enriched with compost. They prefer neutral to slightly alkaline soils (pH 7.0-7.5); neutralize acidic soils with lime.

If you’re starting out new, Oriental lily bulbs are shipped in the fall. Then the bulbs can either be planted immediately in the garden, or stored in a dry unheated location until early spring. Deer and ground squirrels love lily bulbs, so you may need to plant your bulbs in containers rather than in the ground.

Plant lily bulbs in sets of three to five bulbs in individual holes, 6 inches deep and 8 inches apart. Mix 1 T. of bone meal into the soil at the bottom of each planting hole; the high potassium content of bone meal supports a healthy root system. Place one Oriental lily bulb, scales pointy side up, in the bottom of each hole, and then fill the hole with a mixture of soil and compost. Water thoroughly, and mulch with shredded leaves or dried grass clippings. Bulbs should be kept moist but not wet year-round.

The bulb will send up a basal crown of green foliage in the winter. Keep the foliage cut back to help prevent the development of fungal diseases that overwinter in the greenery.

Early next spring, add a low-nitrogen, high-phosphorous fertilizer to boost the plant’s energy for blooming during the summer. Oriental lilies will bloom in mid to late summer after Asiatic lilies have faded. Healthy lilies will grow several flowers on each stalk, so remove spent flowers.

Next fall, you can dig up your Oriental lily bulbs and increase the number of plants in your garden by dividing the bulblets or propagating the scales. (Check out my blog for how to propagate lilies.) In fact, lily bulbs should be replaced every three or four years. Once you have enough lily bulbs for yourself, share them with friends so they will be able to grow lilies, too!

Those of us who admire lilies can consider ourselves in good company. Shakespeare appeared to like lilies a lot as he mentioned them 28 times in his plays and poetry, more than any other flower except the rose.