Lilies are one of the most classically elegant and beautiful perennials plants you can have in your garden. Most of them are relatively low maintenance, and they add a touch of grace to flower beds or cut flower arrangements. There are over 8,000 lily cultivars around the world—that’s a lot of options for your bouquets!
True Lily vs. ‘Impostor’ Lily
Many plants include the word ‘lily’ in their name but are not actually lilies. True lilies are all grown from onion-like bulbs, and their Latin name will include the word Lilium that covers the entire genus. Plants like daylilies, peace lilies, canna, calla, water, and sword lilies are not real lilies! They are often nicknamed ‘lilies’ because they have similar trumpet-shaped flowers, but they’re members of different plant families.
True Lily Types
The most common types of perennial lily plants are Asiatic and Oriental lilies. Asiatic lilies bloom earliest, starting in the spring, and are the lowest maintenance. Different varieties have varying heights, from 1 to 4 feet tall, and they have very minimal scent.
Oriental lilies bloom mid-late summer, come in varying heights from 2 to 6 feet tall, and have a fantastic fragrance that intensifies after dark from masses of huge white, pink, red, or bi-colour blooms. All true lilies make excellent cut flowers. There are even 80-100 lilies native to North America that grow in the wild. Some of these native lilies are easy to grow, and others grow wild in conditions that are difficult to replicate at home!
Easter lilies are usually grown as houseplants, and their usual dormancy periods are often manipulated to force them to bloom in March or April, near Easter weekend. There are also martagon, candid, American hybrid, longiflorum (Easter lily), trumpet, and various Asiatic and Oriental hybrid lilies.
Lilies are perennial plants, but they may not be perennial in every region. For example, Easter lilies might survive the winter here in Powell River, but they likely wouldn’t survive winter in other parts of Canada.
A Word of Warning for Cat-Lovers
True lilies and daylilies are toxic to cats. Every part of the plant is toxic to them. Simply licking a few grains of pollen off their fur can cause fatal kidney failure in cats in just a few days. Even drinking the water from a vase with lilies in it can cause kidney failure.
So, if you have cats or there are cats roaming in your neighbourhood, you may want to skip lilies in your garden or in your flower bouquets. If you think your cat has chewed on your lilies or even licked some of the pollen, call your vet immediately. Lilies are not fatally toxic to dogs, but they may cause them to have an upset stomach if eaten.
Tips for Planting Perennial Lily Plants
In most cases, you should plant lily bulbs in the fall a few weeks before freezing weather hits, but you can also plant them in the spring. Just know that you may not get blooms the first summer after spring planting. You can plant lilies in containers in early summer.
Buying and Planting
If you want to grow lilies, wait to buy bulbs until you’re ready to plant them. Like most bulbs, they need to be planted as quickly as possible. If you buy lilies and can’t get them into the ground in the fall, make sure you plant them in pots because leaving them to sit over the winter unplanted will usually cause them to die.
Soil and Sunlight
Lilies need excellent drainage and 6-8 hours of sunlight. Most perennial lily plants prefer neutral to slightly acidic soil. You should plant them 12-15 inches deep or three times as deep as the bulb is tall. You can space the bulbs 8-15 inches apart. Planting them deep helps stabilize the plant and keeps the bulbs cool through the heat of summer. Lilies look best when planted in odd number groupings.
Mulch around your lilies to help regulate soil temperature and moisture. You should also stake tall lilies, so they don’t fall over and break the stem. Deadhead your lilies once they’ve quit blooming, but leave the leaves to continue collecting and storing energy for the next season.
Dividing Your Lilies
Your perennial lily plants should be divided every 3-4 years when new growth starts to show in the spring. Dig up the whole clump and gently pull the bulbs apart. You may need a knife to cut through the tangled roots, but try not to miss the bulbs themselves. You can plant 2-3 bulbs in a clump together.
Common Lily Problems
Botrytis blight looks like light brown spots on the petals and leaves of lilies. It spreads quickly via spores, and usually, the buds rot and the rest of the plant dies back. Good air circulation will help prevent this blight, so split them every few years to avoid overcrowding. This doesn’t just go for lilies—regularly dividing your perennials is a best practice for many other plants as well!
Watering from above causes damp foliage and creates the perfect breeding ground for fungi, so try not to get water on the flowers and leaves. Remove the affected pieces of the plant and dispose of any fallen leaves around the plant. Do not compost affected plant parts.
Some viruses can be spread to lilies, usually via aphids. This can look like streaking or mottled colour on leaves, dark coloured streaks or rings on solid coloured petals. There is no cure for viruses; the entire plant must be removed and disposed of as quickly as possible. Do not compost the infected plant.
Aphids, with or without the lily virus, really like lilies. You can treat aphids with insecticidal soap, but generally, this is one occasion where it’s best to spray the plant off with water, and it’s less harmful to other garden bugs. Whatever treatment you use for aphids, you must repeat it several times.
Lilies grown in wet conditions are vulnerable to root and bulb rot. Here in Powell River, wet conditions are definitely something we need to think about when planting perennial lily plants. You can use a fungicide to prevent or deal with rot. When planting, you can dip the entire bulb in a fungicide or apply it to the soil later.
Your best bet is to make sure that bulbs are planted somewhere that drains really well. If your yard is always soggy, you may need to grow your lilies in pots. Lilies, like many other perennial plants, need to be planted deep—aim for pots at least 18″ in depth.
Red Lily Beetle
The red lily beetle has so far not made its way into BC. However, it’s been reported in Washington and all over Alberta, so it’s probably only a matter of time until we hear about them here in our province. Lily leaf beetles eat leaves, buds, and flowers. Both the larvae and adults cause extensive damage. They have bright red bodies and black-ish brown bellies and legs.
Some people swear by picking lily beetles off by hand, but you have to be careful, patient, and dedicated to doing it almost every day. When lily beetles feel the vibration of someone walking near the plant, they’ll often drop off the plant and land on their backs. Their brown bellies blend in with the soil, and they’re pretty hard to find. You also need to destroy eggs whenever you find them.
Some people report that neem oil works on lily beetles and others say that sprinkling diatomaceous earth around lilies works as well. The only challenge is that you will need to reapply it every time it rains since it no longer has the desired effect once it is wet.
Love Those Lilies
Lilies are such a great perennial addition to your flowerbeds and landscaping. They’re hardy, they’re low-maintenance and they’re so gorgeous in the garden or as cut flowers in a vase. There are so many stunning varieties out there in a wide range of colours and patterns, you can’t go wrong adding one or a few to your yard.
If you’re ready to add some beautiful and elegant perennial lily plants to your garden, stop by Mother Nature and check out our selection of bulbs. There are so many beautiful varieties; we’re sure you’ll find some that you love!