05 July 2011

trembling banner of perfumed bells

This spring, I planted some lily bulbs.

They were supposed to be martagon lilies, also known as Turk's cap lilies. The species, Lilium martagon, is native everywhere from Portugal to the Causcasus, more or less. Martagon lilies typically range in height from 4 to 6 feet, and in colour from white to deep purple. They've been in cultivation since at least the late 16th C (1596 is the date commonly given but on what authority I do not yet know), and obviously existed in the wild before that.  I am almost certain I have seen them in late mediaeval or Renaissance paintings, though just at the moment all I'm finding are images of what are clearly Madonna lilies (Lilium candidum).

The flowers of the martagon lily are not large, but there can be as many as 50 on one stem of a mature plant, and the plants themselves are long-lived -- up to 80 years in some cases.

I have been thinking for years that I should plant some. The bulbs can be hard to find and more expensive than the more common Oriental and trumpet lilies, but they're worth searching out. Martagons bloom in June, when most of the riot of spring is over, they do well in woodland gardens like mine, and anyway, who can resist a 6-foot purple lily?

Not this gardener. Bring on the 6-foot lilies, I say.

Most bulbs are planted in the autumn, but you can also plant lilies in early spring and get blooms that summer. I planted mine in the central bed of my front yard, which gets dappled sun, and which is mostly filled with hardy geraniums that will shade the bulbs (all lilies like their feet kept cool).

The bulbs shot up greenery within a week. Martagons have a reputation for being a bit sulky when moved, so I was pleased and surprised when all of them began showing buds.

They began opening the other weekend. They were not what I expected.

Not a martagon lily

This is not a martagon lily. This is the double tiger lily, Lilium lancifolium 'Flore Pleno.'

It is performing as beautifully as any gardener could wish, and therefore I feel bad about not loving it madly. But. Not 6 feet tall. Not purple. Indeed, not purple but orange. And not fragrant, either, which is often the case when selection is made for colour or form, but seems like insult piled on injury here.  'Lily' is a byword for fragrance among gardeners; that these are scentless is almost a violation of trust.  I want -- quite irrationally, I know -- to shout at them 'you're lilies!  where is your perfume?'

Bah.  I'll try again next year.  Anyone want to recommend a good lily bulb source?
Titus Munson Coan

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