What is a Lily?
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What is a Lily
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What is a Lily?

A true lily belongs to the genus Lilium. The genus belongs to an even greater family of plants known as the Liliaceae. There are over 200 genera of plants in the larger Liliaceae family including familiar garden plants such as Asparagus, Agapanthus, Frittilaria, Hemerocallis, Hosta, and Scillia.

Many plants are commonly named with "Lily" as part of the common name that are not in fact lilies at all. Calla Lilies and Canna Lilies are two such plants that many people have used in their garden. The Calla Lily is part of a very large family of plants known as the Araceae. These include familiar house plants such as Philodendron, Scindapsus (Pathos), and Monstera (Spilt leaf Philodendrons). Canna Lilies come from the family Cannaceae. They are the only genus in the family comprised of nineteen species in total.

True lilies can be recognized by the fact they form bulbs underground, unlike the closely resembling  flower of the Daylily or Hemerocallis which grows fleshy roots from a crown.

The Lily Bulb

The Lily bulb can be described as looking like an Artichoke. It is composed of firm fleshy scales and a short stem or axis (which is more often called the Basal Plate). The Basal Plate is where the scales are attached and this is the most important part of the bulb, because it produces the roots, scales and buds for new growth. The scales are in actuality modified leaves. They are much thicker and shorter than regular leaves and are used to store food for the following years' growth. It is very important that the bulb scales be full and healthy because this is where the plant draws its food until there are sufficient roots and leaves to sustain the plant. The scales can come in various colours such as white, yellow and reddish-purple. This is one way to identify different species when you go to order flowers. Also the scales may change colour if exposed to light, so scales at the surface might be different from those that are deeper in the ground for the same group of plants.

The roots of lilies have a dual purpose; one is to feed the plants and absorb moisture, the other is that they anchor the plant. (The basal roots which are attached to the basal plate anchor the plant.) They also have a very fascinating property of being contractile and will over time pull the bulb to the proper depth needed for survival. The stem roots are extremely important to the lily plant because they are the feeding roots. This is why it is extremely important to give the lily enough room from the top of the bulb to the ground level for good stem root growth.

The Lily Stem

Lilies come in all sizes from a couple of inches to 8 or more feet is some cultivars. When purchasing a lily it is important to know how tall it is supposed to grow in ideal conditions. This is information that is usually supplied from the growers catalogue or reference books. One thing to remember is that these are guidelines and not absolutes. An Asiatic cultivar that may grow to 4 feet for you may only grow to 3 feet for someone else, or maybe even taller than 4 feet for another. Many factors influence the growth of lilies such as soil type, temperature, watering, nutrient level and age of the bulb.

I have a trumpet cultivar known as "Tropical Isles" that is supposed to only grow 4-5 feet in height. In the summer of 2006 it was well over 6 feet in height to the top most bloom. As to why this plant and all the plants in the same bed grew taller than they were listed is unknown to me. Whether this type of growth continues remains to be seen. I have heard of some trumpet-type lilies achieving heights of 10 to 15 feet.

Because Lilies come in all sizes and colours, there is a lily for any place in a garden; tall lilies for the back or centre of a border, mid-sized for the middle, and small or pixie lilies for the front of the garden beds. Some are even small enough to be grown indoors or on the patio or fire escape of your city apartment. If you do grow indoors, just be sure to warn your house cleaning service NYC about the pollen (see the warning further down the page). Another thing to keep in mind is whether or not your lily needs to be staked. Lilies tend to be top-heavy since all the flowers are at the top of the stem. The number and size of the flowers is different for every cultivar. Some lilies have thin stems and should be staked, others have very wide woody stems and do not need staking. The Orienpet (Oriental/Trumpet) group of lilies have a tendency to produce very large woody stems.

Have you ever noticed that where the lily is growing may not be exactly where you planted the bulb? The reason for this occurring is that while some lilies grow straight up from the lily bulb, others have a tendency to travel horizontally underground before emerging. Lily stems for the most part are green in colouration. This can vary from light green to dark green even in the same grouping, Stems can also be in the dark red to dark purple range. As stated before the length of the stems is dependent on the plants genetics, age, nutrient availability as well as other cultural factors for a given area. The height of any lily may vary from year to year, but it is usual for a lily to increase in its relative height as the bulb matures.

The Leaves

The leaves of lilies come in a number of forms and growing patterns. Lilium pumilum has narrow grass-like foliage. Lilium auratum var. platyphyllum has broad, lanceolate leaves. Lilium taliense produce stem that does not produce any leaves until it reaches about 12 inches above the soil.

Several North American lilies such as Lilium canadenseand its various hybrids, as well as Lilium martagon and Lilium hansonii produce leaves in whorls around the stem with leafless gaps in between each whorl. Most others lilies species and hybrids have an alternating pattern going up the stem. Some keep a uniform size leaf as it moves up the stem and others have decreasing smaller leaves at the top of the stem.

The primary function of the leaves is to manufacture food by using the process of photosynthesis, where sunlight is converted to sugars (glucose) and stored in the bulb for the following seasons growth. For those who might be interested the formula for photosynthesis goes like this:

6CO2             +         6H2O   +           686                   ------>     C6H12O6     +  6 O2

carbon dioxide            water         Kcalories (sunlight)                     glucose             oxygen

The leaves have secondary functions as well, they get rid of excess water through a process known as transpiration and they also respire just like animals do.

It is very important that the leaves of the lily plant be in good condition. More will be talked about that when we get to the pest and diseases section.

The Lily Flower

The inflorescence of the lilies can be either a raceme, an umbel or a single terminating flower. A raceme is a series of flower stalks or pedicels along the stem ending with one or more flowers. An umbel is a flowering pattern where all the flower stalks originate from one point on the stem.

The pedicel or flower stalk may be either branched or un-branched depending on the genetics and maturity of the lily plant. Larger Orienpet, Trumpet and Asiatic cultivars may branch into two to three or more buds. The blooms usually open in succession starting with the primary buds and moving through the secondary to finally the tertiary buds. This greatly increases not only the number of blooms but also increases the bloom time per plant.

A typical lily flower is composed of a number of various parts, each having its individual purpose. The outer part of the flower is called the Perianth, it is composed of three Sepals and three Petals. For the most part they are undifferentiated and look the same. The six are often called Tepals and usually have the same colours or patterns.

Lily flowers have six male reproductive parts or Stamens. The stamens consist of a long filament that holds the Anthers or pollen bearing organs away from the flower center. Holding the pollen away from the flower allows wind to aid in pollination of nearby plants, when insects or birds are not available. Lily pollen can come in a range of colours from soft yellow, orange, rusty brown to dark brown depending on the species or hybrids. The pollen colour adds to the over all beauty of the flower.


A word of warning about lily pollen! The pollen of lily plants is very difficult to get rid of if you get it on your skin and especially clothing. If you get it on your clothing do not immediately try to brush it off as that will just spread it out more. Take some tape and use the sticky side to pull up as much of it as possible as soon as you notice it. You should be able to get rid of most of the pollen while it is still sitting on the surface of your clothing. If you plan on cutting your lilies for bouquets in the house, cut off the anthers as soon as the flower opens enough to allow access to them. This prevents the pollen from getting into the house and staining furniture or counter tops. When you buy Lilies from a florist you will see they do this to the open flowers before you take them home.


The centre of the flower contains the female reproductive parts or Pistil. It is composed of three parts, the Ovarylocated at the base of the flower, this is where the seeds develop. The Style, which holds the stigma away from the flower centre. The Stigma, where the pollen settles. The stigma is three lobes and has a thick sticky liquid to hold the pollen in place for fertilization to occur.

At the base of each tepal is the Nectary Furrow, this is a groove in the tepal that leads to the nectaries below. Nectar is secreted by certain species and cultivars to attract birds or insects to help in pollination. Not all species or cultivars produce nectar.

The actual purpose of the Papillea is still a topic of debate and research so at this time I cannot give you a valid answer to the question.

Lilies come in a variety of colours and patterns. Colours can be various yellow, oranges, reds, pinks, whites and milticoloured. They can have  no spots, spots, brushmarks, splatters (tango varieties).

The one colour lilies do not come in is blue. It would have to be a real fluke of nature or some genetic resequencing by humans to create a blue lily. Black lilies are being achieved by crossing increasingly darker red varieties, whether true black can be achieved is still to be seen in the future.

The shape of the flower and its direction is one of the main characteristics of Lilies. The flowers can be down facing, side facing or upwards facing depending on the cultivar and division it is in.

There are a number of shapes that characterize lilies. The common flower shapes are Turk's Cap, Trumpet, Star, Bowl and Flat. Each shape has variations to the common shape. Some trumpets are more open, some have recurved tepals to varying degrees. The variety is almost endless.

Each species and cultivar can have any combination of colour, pattern, direction or flower shape. This makes for a huge variety of possibilities in your garden and in your hybridizing efforts.

For more information on Lilies please follow the links just below for pages on growing, propagating and insect pests and diseases.

Lily Calendar






If you have comments or questions please free to contact me. Contact Mike

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