Scent of summer

In the flower garden in summer, it’s impossible to go past the lilies, as their scent fills the air. We’ve been hooked on perfumed lilies for more than a century. This is particularly true of the Oriental and Oriental Trumpet (OT) groups, although the blooms of some species – particularly Lilium regale, L. longiflorum and L. candidum – also have luscious scent.

Later flowering than the vigorous Asiatic group and, it must be admitted, with a more limited colour range, Oriental lilies are fragrant hybrids, especially of L. auratum and L. speciosum, although several Japanese species have been used successfully in breeding programmes. Orientals are usually tall, reaching 2m in the right situation, although there have been some recent introductions of dwarf varieties that are suitable for container growing.

From the 1950s, or even earlier, hybridisers were experimenting by crossing species to try to get a greater range of flowers. Believed to be the first of the Oriental Trumpet (OT) or Orienpet group is ‘Black Beauty’, bred in 1957 by Leslie Woodriff. ‘Black Beauty’was especially important because, unlike the lime-hating Orientals, it was more tolerant of alkaline soils, an attribute inherited from one of its parents, unscented L. henryi, while from its other parent, L. speciosum rubrum, came good perfume. These two characteristics have ensured the popularity of the OTs which, along with the Asiatics, now dominate the lily lists in catalogues.

‘Black Beauty’ tops the North American Lily Society’s Hall of Fame list, based on its members annual vote for their favourites.

Two more innovations influenced the lineup of perfumed lilies. The first was ‘Stargazer’, introduced in 1975.

A complex cross of L. auratum and L. speciosum, this still-popular hardy hybrid has upward-facing blooms, so the group is sometimes referred to as “stargazer lilies”.

The second, pale pink ‘Miss Lucy’, was not the result of a hybridising programme but is thought to be a natural mutation (sport) of an Oriental lily, ‘Marco Polo’. The first successful double Oriental, at 90cm, ‘Miss Lucy’ is a more compact plant than most others in the group. Following ‘Miss Lucy’ have come more scented doubles, including white ‘Serene Angel’, pale pink ‘Soft Music’ and warmer pinks ‘Lilac Cloud’ and ‘Sweet Rosy’. 

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Lilium longiflorum ‘Snow Queen’ is a vigorous cultivar.

Great divide

Lilies are divided into nine divisions, from Asiatic hybrids (division 1) to species (division 9). Division 2 contains the L. martagon hybrids, then come L. candidum hybrids (division 3). The American hybrids (division 4) date back to about 1918 and are a small group, while the L. longiflorum hybrids (Division 5) include many “florists” lilies. Trumpets and Aurelians (many with L. regale and L. henryi in their ancestry) fall into Division 6 and the Orientals into Division  7. Contrary to popular belief, LA hybrids (Division 8) do not hail from Los Angeles, as “LA” refers to crossing L. longiflorum (L) with Asiatic (A) lilies. This division also includes Asiapets, OTs (or Orienpets), Longipets, LO (Longiflorum x Oriental) and OA (Oriental-Asiatic) hybrids.

Not so sweet

Most scented lilies have sweet perfume but the Turk’s cap lily, Lilium martagon, useful because of its tolerance of damp feet and a shady situation, has a strong, decidedly unpleasant scent, so it is best sited where the unwary will not take a deep sniff and probably reel back in horror. 

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Chinese Lilium regale has been used in breeding modern Aurelian and trumpet varieties.

Growing lilies

We’ve all been told how much lilies hate lime but, as the hybridisers of Oriental Trumpets (OT) have demonstrated, using less fussy species in breeding programmes has considerably improved their tolerance. If you live in an area with chalky, alkaline soil, OTs such as ‘Holland Beauty’, ‘Scheherazade’, ‘Shocking’ or ‘Nymph’ are likely to do better for you than any of the Orientals, while among the species, the Madonna (L. candidum) actually revels in a lime-rich soil. Whatever you choose, a good rule for all lilies is to plant bulbs in rich soil with soil over them to twice their depth. If your ground tends to be heavy, stand bulbs on river sand – never beach sand, as lilies hate salt – into which blood and bone or fertiliser has been mixed as poor drainage is fatal. The exception to the twice-as-deep rule is L. candidum, whose bulbs should be planted with the top third above the soil. Most lilies like to have their roots in cool soil and their heads in sun too much shade and stems will tilt towards the strongest light. If you plan to grow lilies in containers, select smaller-growing varieties which have basal (stem) roots as well as roots from the bulb itself. They have the same requirements as those grown in open ground and do very well in tomato mix rather than a general potting mix. Repot at least every other year. Lilies have no period of dormancy, so should be planted as soon as possible and never left to dry out. They can be propagated by dividing clumps of mature bulbs or by putting scales, pointed end up, into damp sandy soil. Growing from seed is another option, although it may take a year or more for seed to germinate and another three years to get flowers, so be patient.