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LOVELY LILIES: The choices are endless with these elegant blooms

Yikes. The lilies are in bloom! My husband calls them “statuesque beauties.” This is a perfect description for this showy charmer; some, like the tree lily (a cross between an Asiatic and Oriental lily), can reach five feet with magnificent blooms resting on the tops of slender stems. Although most lilies do not reach such heights, they all have an elegant presence in the garden. Both the Asiatic and the Oriental lilies have rightly earned the title, “Queens of the Summer Garden.”

Lilies are a member of the genus lilium, herbaceous perennials that grow from a bulb. The bulb has scales on it and no protective skin. Lilies are divided into types or divisions. In these divisions there are hundreds and hundreds of gorgeous cultivars (bred by man). It is hard for any gardening resource to keep pace with the new lilies being developed. Check any bulb catalog and you will be overwhelmed with the choices.

Some flowers such as the daylily, the calla lily or the canna lily are not true lilies and are not part of the genus lilium.



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Oriental vs. Asiatic Lilies

My favorite of the true lilies are the Oriental and the Asiatic lily; both are beloved as cut flowers and as garden highlights.

Both the Asiatic lily and the Oriental lily are available with pastel and bold blooms and wild or sedate color combinations. ‘Landini’, an Asiatic lily, has dramatic dark purple flowers.

Lilies have been important to people for decades. In Greek mythology, the lily represented the goddess Hera and her sense of innocence and purity. In the Middle Ages, the lily was associated with the virgin Mary and represented purity. In Victorian times the lily remained associated with purity. For the Chinese, the lily represented 100 years of love and good luck (thus their popularity as a wedding flower).

At a glance, Oriental and Asiatic lilies look much the same; they, however, are not the same. Once we are familiar with the differences, it will be much easier to recognize one from the other.

• The Asiatic lily is native to Asia; the Oriental lily comes from Japan.

• The Asiatic lily reaches one to six feet; the Oriental lily can reach two to eight feet and can get taller every year (and some are known as tree lilies).

• The Asiatic lily has long slender, glossy leaves; the Oriental lily has wider leaves which are further apart and heart-shaped.

• The Asiatic lily blooms earlier than the Oriental lily (May and June); the Oriental lily blooms (late June and July) as the Asiatic lily fades.

• The Asiatic lily multiplies but not as readily as the Oriental lily.

• The Asiatic lily has no fragrance; the Oriental lily has highly fragrant flowers

• The Asiatic lily looks like a small artichoke as it comes up from the ground; the Oriental lily looks more like a torpedo.

• The Asiatic lily has multiple narrow leaves up and down the stem as they come up in spring; the Oriental lily has less growth and the stems are wider.

• The Asiatic lily does much better if planted in the fall as the winter chill helps produce bigger flowers; the Oriental lily can be planted in the fall or spring.



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Tips for taking care of lilies

Taking care of either Oriental or Asiatic lilies is not difficult; they do demand certain environmental and planting conditions to produce fabulous flowers. With careful selection and proper care we can have sublime blooms in our gardens for months.

Buy healthy bulbs and plant them as soon as you get them home. Should the bulbs dry out a bit before planting, let them sit in moist peat moss or sand to allow the bulbs to plump up and roots to start to grow.

Prepare a great place for the lilies to call home. They will not stand for wet soil that does not drain. They are not bog plants. The soil must drain well. Amend the soil with lots of organic matter and till it in.

Oriental lilies require full sun (eight hours or more); Asiatic lilies will take a bit more shade, but they need at least six hours of full sun. These are not dappled shade or shade garden plants.

Soil test your garden as lilies do not like alkaline soil.

The bulbs must be planted deeply to support the long stems and the dazzling flowers. Dig your holes at least eight to twelve inches deep.

Lilies look best if planted in groups of (at least) three.

Lilies like their roots cool (thus, the deep planting site) and their faces in the sun (thus, full sun). It is a good idea to mulch the bulbs. An even better idea is to plant annuals or perennials that will not shade out the lilies and those with short roots to shelter the tender bulbs from the hot summer sun. Happy spreaders are not recommended. The lilies do not want competition around the bulbs. Flowers to consider are dianthus or marigolds.

Lilies should be kept moist all year, but not over-watered. We can cut back on the moisture once the lily foliage has turned yellow, signaling that the lily is going into dormancy. It is important that the roots never dry out completely.

Give lilies too much water and their roots will rot. Drip irrigation is preferable to overhead watering to keep the leaves healthy. If overhead is used, do it early in the morning, allowing the foliage to dry out before nightfall.

Once the lilies have put on their dramatic show and the flowers have faded, remove the spent blooms. The lily needs to put its energy into its roots instead of producing seeds. Wait until all the foliage has withered before cutting it back.

I have grown lilies in containers with annuals and perennials to shade the roots. Although the lilies perform well, they seem to do better for me when planted in the ground. Here are a few hints to help you be more successful: 

• Select a medium to large container.

• Use excellent well-draining potting soil and provide some slow-release fertilizer. 

• Give them ample water but do not over water. 

• After the lilies finish blooming, remove the spent seed heads and let them remain until the foliage yellows and cut them back.

• Stop watering when growth starts. 

• Leave them outside and undisturbed over the winter. 

Next spring, the cycle of growth and bloom will begin again.



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Diseases in lilies

One of the most dangerous situations that lilies encounter in the garden is contracting viral or mosaic disease. Viral mosaic is a killer with no remedy. Tiger lilies may carry it without any signs. An ounce of prevention is the key: buy healthy bulbs and immediately discard any lilies that show signs of the disease (mottled leaves or stunted growth). It is suggested that we do not plant tiger lilies in the garden with Asiatic or Oriental lilies.

Aphids carry the mosaic virus; thus, they must be dispatched if they appear. I have had problems with aphids. I sprayed a hard stream of water on the affected areas and also used insecticidal soap, if it became necessary to save the plants. Should you choose insecticidal soap, follow the instructions exactly. I intend to deal with the aphids much sooner than I usually do to protect my lilies.

If your lilies get botrytis blight, a fungus that causes reddish brown spots on flowers and leaves, quick control is a must. Remove the diseased foliage immediately. Water on a regular basis without wetting the foliage if possible, unless you are trying to remove aphids.

Unfortunately, the deer love lilies as the humans do. It can frequently be a race for the gardener to see the lilies before the deer devour them.

Lilies prefer not to get too crowded. If that happens, in the spring or fall dig up the plants to divide.

Most lilies (especially the taller ones) droop over or bend under the weight of the flowers. Staking them can be an essential task in lily care and maintenance. Special garden or bamboo stakes and an appropriate product to secure the tender stems to the stakes are easy to find.

Take care when handling lilies from the garden; the pollen can stain anything it touches. The orange-colored pollen is difficult to remove from clothing and other fabrics. Before picking the lilies, remove the pollen from the stamens. Snip off the ends and be careful not to drop the pollen on the lily petals.

‘Casablanca’ or ‘Star Gazer’ lilies are household names and are a must have for every garden. Once the gardener knows what lilies need to thrive, they can fill the landscape with exquisite lilies in a variety of stunning colors and sizes.


Sherry Blanton, “The Southern Gardener,” writes about gardening for The Anniston Star. Contact her at Follow her on Facebook at Southern Gardener-Anniston Star.