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All about lilies

The group of bulbs named lilium, botanically termed monocotyledons, are a steadfast perennial presence in the Thuya Garden borders.

Lilium, the plant genus name for lily, has a long romantic history dating back to ca. 1750 – 1675 BCE. Records show images of lilies on vases and frescoes discovered and dated from that time. Lilium has had a cultural and symbolic importance to humans throughout time. The bulb was used for food by the Greeks and Romans, and the lily bulb and petals have been used medicinally. The lily was considered the flower of Hera, wife of Zeus. During the Middle Ages, the Madonna Lily was associated with the Virgin Mary. Noble distinctions, indeed.

The world of lilium

Lilium are vast in descriptions and characteristics. Horticulturists use group names to define lilium including Asiatic, Trumpet, Species or Turk’s Cap, Oriental, and Orienpet or OT (cross between Oriental and Trumpet lilies). These names may vary within the bulb market.

Many lilies used in gardens today are hybrids. Lily breeding has been conducted for centuries with breakthroughs happening in the last 50 years especially. The Dutch have led the way. Hybridization has been the name of the game, offering better disease resistance and increased reliability, along with better drought, cold, and heat tolerance.

Lilies can thrive in a pH range of 5.5 to 7.5, with 5.5 to 6.5 being the ideal, but they are quite forgiving. They prefer sandy loamy soil which has humus (organic matter). They like to have their heads in the sun and their feet in the cool soil. Moist shade is a prime location.

Weather conditions affect the height and profusion of bloom. A decent amount of rainfall in the spring with some sunny days is conducive to a good lily show.

Some varieties at Thuya have been there for many years, and I have added other varieties in the past several years. The reliability of most lilium and their ability to captivate herald their rightful significance in our landscape. Lilium emerges from the soil at various times throughout the season, depending on the type and variety, starting in June, and continuing through September.

Although the lilies in the Thuya borders are not native plants, they are hardy performers and have earned their place. The stands of lilies at Thuya are awe-inspiring to visitors, and the fragrance alone is captivating and transcendent. They have a majestic presence without being overbearing. I cannot imagine the Thuya borders without lilies.

Dependable lily varieties at Thuya

Lilium lankongense is one of the first lilies to emerge and bloom at Thuya Garden every year. In the Thuya border, it declares its presence like a spectacle, standing solo in its glory. It produces an average of 15 blooms per stalk. Its style and habits are unique. This lily is a straight species – it does not have a variety name. It is a species native to the mountains of China, found at elevations of 10,000 feet there.

Lilium lankongense

It welcomes some light shade and uniformly damp soil. The pendulous Turk’s cap blooms with speckled tepals, are quite enchanting. Leaves or petals are called tepals, a fused sepal and petal with the nectar produced at the base of each ‘leaf.’ The fragrance is light. They spread by stoloniferous stems, sending a stem out from itself that will root and produce new growth.

Please be aware the Lilium lankongense at Thuya differs in color from the one available on the market at this time. Thuya’s is much darker, a rosy magenta with many beautiful spots cascading down the tepals. This may be due to natural variation. It garners much admiration from both staff and visitors. Lilium lankongense is one of my favorite plants in the borders.

Lilium ‘Arabesque’

One of the first Orienpet hybrid lilies available on the market was Lilium ‘Arabesque.’ At Thuya, this one is planted near the lower pavilion beds on the woods side. I anticipate the grand entrance of this mature stand every season when they bloom in August.

Nothing seems to get in the way of this lily! It is velvety rose-red with white-edged recurved tepals and reaches a height of six-plus feet. Lilies certainly are unique plants. The color tones within the blooms lend well to coordinating neighboring annuals and plants. The palette choices are many.

Lilium ‘Scheherazade’

Lilium ‘Scheherazade’ is another Orienpet hybrid lily. It is also a welcome sight in the Thuya border, reaching a height of four to seven feet, with a mid- to late-season bloom time. The tall stalks of the Scheherazade lily are often referred to as lily trees. Stalks can produce up to 40 blossoms per stalk!

Scheherazade lily has a delightful fragrance. The blooms are crimson, edged in gold, and the tepals tipped in white. The palette within the blooms enables a wide variety in the neighboring plant choices. I often vary these from year to year for new interest. This mature stand is located north of the apple tree. 

Lilium 'Conca D’Or'

The Lilium 'Conca D’Or', an Orienpet hybrid, deserves some attention, although it is much shorter than the other lilies. It grows between three and five feet tall. It is a steadfast and strong bloomer, offering a burst of lemon yellow with cream-white edges of the tepals. The at-peak bloom fragrance is rich and sweet. They offer a wonderful addition to the edge and middle sections of the border, bringing in a cheery yellow that offers a bridge of color for the surrounding plants. This lilium can be found in the smaller border south of the apple tree toward the reflecting pool to the left, as well as the south end of the apple tree border.

The lily leaf beetle

I would be remiss if I did not mention an insect that we need to diligently combat in protecting lilies. That is the introduced species, the lily leaf beetle. They overwinter in the soil and emerge on warmer spring days.

Adult lily leaf beetle. Image courtesy of Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut,

The number one question from visitors is, “How do you combat the lily leaf beetle?” They are very destructive in their larval form, especially when quickly defoliating the leaves. Some gardeners have abandoned growing lilies due to them.

The Thuya Garden team makes scouting for the adult beetles part of our daily routine starting in early spring. We are most successful spotting them at the peak of the day’s warmth when the adults will be questing for a mate, perched on the leaf’s edges, or inside a leaf whorl. We hand-pick the adults hoping we can get them before they start making progeny.

The lily leaf beetle eggs are usually but not always on the undersides of leaves. They are very small, dash-shaped, and orange-red or reddish, and strongly adhered to the leaves. Once the eggs hatch into larval form, the larvae will use their excrement as a protective defense piling it onto themselves, essentially encasing themselves in it. Staff continue to scout throughout the season, looking for the beetle in all its stages. Our team has good luck with this approach, but somehow there are still a few new adults each year.



The long-lived Thuya border garden lilies are not to be missed when you visit this summer. As you get inspired to try lilies in your garden, be patient. Keep in mind that lilies like their heads in the sun, without overly soggy soil, protected from deer and rabbits. With survival success over the winter, they will begin to produce more bulbs, and you will see new stems each year, just as I have with Arabesque, Conca D’Or, and Scheherazade at Thuya Garden.

Learn about the plants at all three gardens and the natural lands of the Preserve on the IrisBG plant records database. Use the search options in the database to find a specific plant or a list of plants in a specific location.


Written by Wendy Dolliver, Head Gardener - Thuya Garden

Photos by Wendy Dolliver, Head Gardener, Margaret Handville and Liz Perry, Thuya Gardeners

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