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Classifying Lilies

Asiatic lilies belong in the genus Lilium, and are sometimes confused with that other popular garden plant, the daylily. Daylilies, along with lily-of-the-valley, calla lily, and water lily, are not “true” lilies; that is, they are not in the genus Lilium. True lilies include Easter lilies, Asiatic lilies, turks-cap lilies, tiger lilies, Madonna lilies, Canada lilies, and Oriental lilies — in fact, there are almost 100 lily species, hundreds of hybrids, and about 7000 registered varieties! The history of lilies dates back thousands of years and, as is the case with other plants that have been cultivated for millennia, their classification is complex and hybrids abound. Source: The National Gardening Association

The first lily known to western civilization was the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum). According to the Time-Life Encyclopedia of Gardening – Bulbs by James Underwood Crockett (1971), … is mentioned in history for the first time on a tablet that was inscribed in Sumeria nearly 5,000 years ago. The tablet tells of a city in Persia that was surrounded by fields of lilies and in fact was named Susa, which means lily. Some scholars believe the lily spread from Persia in the caravans of nomads who took edible bulbs along as food for their long journeys; occasionally they would drop one, according to this theory, and it would take root and grow where it fell. I’m not sure how much of this to believe. A reliable friend tells me that ‘susa’ doesn’t mean lily. As I recall from the conversation, he thought it was the name of a deity. Of course many things can share the same name – plants, deities, provinces, kings, etc. I wouldn’t even hazard a guess as to how many Rosas, Violets, Lilys and so on are reading this article, so it’s possible that the lily was named after a deity, or the other way around. Bas-reliefs of this white-flowered species have been found from Ninevah of 700 BC.

The Madonna lily also received great respect from the Minoans, who portrayed it on frescoes and pottery in 1800 BC Crete. They associated it with their goddess Britomartis. (for more info on history of this particular lily see

The “lilies of the field” mentioned in the Bible are now thought by most experts to have been anemones.

Narcissus and lilies were used in the funeral wreaths of ancient Egypt, and a bulb of it had been entombed with an Egyptian mummy (though Scheider doesn’t mention which mummy).

Our word, lily, was derived from the Latin word for this plant, lilium, which was in turn derived from the Greek word for it, leirion. The Greeks held this lily in such high esteem that they associate it with their queen of the gods, Hera, and in their mythology, tell that it first sprouted from milk of Hera. They used crocus, lilies, and hyacinths in ceremonial crowns as far back as 380 BC, and Theophrastus (the Father of Botany) wrote of them just before the third century BC.

As with so many other things, the Romans adopted the Greek respect for the Madonna Lily. They associated it with their queen of the gods. Their soldiers took it with them as not only food, but also making a salve for wounds and an ointment for burns from the bulbs. In this way, this lily was even introduced as far away as England. Not only was the burn ointment used till fairly recent times, European beauties, as late as the 19th century AD fought off old age with a salve prepared as Dioscorides (41-68 AD) suggested, being beaten small with honey……clear faces and make them without wrinkles. Yet another of Dioscorides lotions required much more work. This one required 3,000 lilies to make a single batch. This lily also made several appearances in the poems of Virgil (70-19 BC).

Skipping ahead to Christian times, respect for this flower was carried even through the change of religions. It was grown in Charlemagne’s garden in the ninth century and even into the 15th and early 16th centuries, when paintings of the Angel who had always been portrayed holding a scepter, now was portrayed holding a white lily. It was a symbol of the Virgin’s purity and her role as Queen of the Angels.

Because the introduction of Chinese and Japanese lily species to our society came during much more recent times, there is much more knowledge that survives about it. Japanese lilies were first introduced to the West by pictures from Engelbert Kaempfer in about 1690. These pictures included L. lancifolium, L. speciosum, and L. concolor, but they weren’t published till 1791. The next botanist in Japan was Carl Thunberg in 1775. He collected many bulbs and may have brought some lilies back with him. The bulbs of L. lancifolium, davidii, japonicum and the Gold-Band Lily (L. auratum), have been in the diets of Japanese, Koreans and Chinese for over 2,000 years.

The first collectors of Chinese lilies were French priests. The first was Pere Armand David, who collected in Mongolia and the area between Tibet and China from 1866 to 1870. Lilium davidii was named after him. L. delavayi was named after Pere Delavay, who was the second French priest collecting lilies in China. He collected in the Yunnan Province. Then came Peres Soulie and Farges. After them came Augustine Henry from 1881 on for several years in central China. He collected Henry’s Lily (L. henryi) on limestone cliffs in the Ichang gorges of the Yangtze River in 1888. Then he found the Regal Lily (L. regale) in Tibet in 1903. The newest species I know of to be found was L. ciliatum by Patrick Synge in N. E. Turkey and N. Iran in 1960.

With Easter coming on, I should probably say that it is now Lilium longiflorum, native to the Ryukyu Islands of Japan. Those who get these plants, should know that they have been forced for flowering over the Easter holidays. If they are kept in the house till the flowers are finished flowering and then planted outdoors, they will come back and flower the next year. They will then flower even better the following year…….assuming they grow well in your area.

They come from the most tropical of Japan’s Islands, and aren’t adaptable to points north of there. They prefer an acidic or neutral environment, whereas southern California has extremely alkaline water and soil. They and all lilies require excellent drainage, whereas San Diego usually has hard-pan adobe – very similar to clay. If you have a spot in a reasonably sunny location with good drainage, by all means….give them a try. In most parts of the country, they prefer full sun. In the brightest parts, they’d appreciate some light shade. Don’t expect them to flower at Easter in your garden, their normal flowering period is midsummer. Source:


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