Lilium is a genus of 117 species, which grow mainly on woodland margins and in scrub, and are found naturally through North America, Europe and Asia south to the Philippines; there are also many garden hybrids.
Lilies are bulbous perennials; the bulbs are formed of numerous tightly overlapping scales. The leafy stems are erect and unbranched, topped by a single flower or a terminal group of flowers. The shape and habit of the flower varies from upward-facing, horizontal or outward-facing, nodding or pendent. They may be cup- to bowl- or bell-shaped, trumpet- or funnel-shaped, Turk’s-cap- or star-shaped. Lilium martagon is an example of a Turk’s-cap-shaped flower, whilst Lilium longiflorum var. longiflorum has a trumpet-shaped flower. The sometimes very fragrant flowers vary in colour from pure white through pink and red to orange and yellow, and all the colours between, with various markings.
Lilies can make tall plants, reaching up to three metres in height in the case of Lilium superbum, whilst other species, such as Lilium oxypetalum, might only reach twenty centimetres. Breeding has produced plants with ever more flamboyant flowers, cultivars suitable for pot culture through reduction in height and other cultivars for the cut-flower market.
Lilies make popular garden plants, some prefer acid soils, whilst others need alkaline soils. In the wild, they generally grow in regions where there is some summer rainfall and there is never a completely dry season. Lilium candidum, from the Mediterranean region, is one of the exceptions – here summers and long and dry, with rain falling in the winter. Lilies prefer to have their bulbs with some shade, but their tops in the sun. Many are hardy in Britain, but others such as Lilium longiflorum and Lilium nepalense must be grown under glass. Propagation can be by seed, offsets, bulblets, scales or stem bulbils, if they have them.
Some Lilium species are used as a food source in times of famine. The bulbs are rich in starch and may be eaten as potatoes or, in some cases, ground up to make a flour for bread making. In 1649, the English physician Nicholas Culpeper listed ailments that Lilium candidum could be used to treat, he included the treatment of snake bites, burns and wounds. However, he lifted most of this information from Dioscorides’ De materia medica, written in c.70 AD – which had become the standard source of information about the medicinal properties of plants.
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Matthew B 1997. Growing bulbs. B.T. Batsford Ltd.