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What is a Lily?

“To gild the lily...” what an odd expression. “Gilding” is gold-plating, and why would anyone want to gold-plate a flower?

Lily is the common name of a large family of plants which grown from plump, scaly bulbs, which lack the papery brown “tunic” of the familiar daffodil. Most Lilies have a collection of trumpet-shaped flowers on top of a stout, single stem, usually with a rosette of leaves springing from ground level.

There are many types or division of Lilium, the most popular include the medium-sized Asiatic hybrids, the tall, scented, upward-facing Oriental lilies which are often known as Stargazer lilies, and the Martagon lilies with their elegant curled “Turk's Head” petals.

They are equally at home in contemporary pots, or in the herbaceous border, where they bring height and colour: and if you choose your bulbs with care, you can find Lilies flowering right the way from spring into autumn.

The botanical name for the proper Lily is Lilium, which is one of the easier botanical names to remember! Unusually, it is not derived from an actual Latin word, but is a latinised version of the Greek word leirion: however, it is not clear what the original meaning of the Greek word was, although it might be connected to “white” or possibly “purity”, as the name Lilium was originally given to the white Madonna lily, Lilium candidum.

How to grow Lilies
Those scaly bulbs don't like to be waterlogged, as they are prone to rotting, especially over winter, so a well-drained situation is called for – this is why they do so well in pots. When planted in the ground, they like to be planted deeply, 12” or more (30cm) which serves the dual function of keeping the bulbs cool in summer, and giving support to the stem, stabilising it and reducing the need for staking.

They need full sun to flower well, and they are best planted in groups of 3 or 5 bulbs, to avoid a “dotty” look: and, like many bulbs, it is essential to allow the leaves to die down naturally after flowering, to give the bulbs time to store up nutrients for the following season: for this reason, a location towards the back of a border can hide the decaying leaves from sight.

Dead-heading won't encourage them to re-flower, sadly, but it does prevent them from wasting energy in creating seeds, and it keeps the border tidy, so it is well worth doing.

What are Lilies used for?
Their main use is purely ornamental: they make fabulous cut flowers, as the long stalks lend themselves to large arrangements, the flowers are very showy, and many of them are scented. They can be cut – with as long a length of stalk as possible – while still merely buds, as long as a sliver of colour can be seen, and they will then last for up to two weeks in a display, with the help of clean water and a little plant food.

How do you know it's a Lily?
Due to their large underground bulbs, most Lilium are dormant through the winter, growing a new basal rosette of leaves each year. The flowers are usually borne on stout, upright, single stems, each with either one flower or a cluster of flowers at the very top.

They come in a wide range of colours, but the colourful part is not actually a petal, it is a tepal: Lilies are botanically rather unusual, in that their petals and sepals cannot be distinguished, so the whole lot are referred to as tepals, a characteristic that they share with Tulips.

There are usually 6 of these tepals, and they are either spreading, which gives the familiar trumpet shape of the flower, or reflexed which means curled backwards, as in the more exotic-looking Turk's Cap or Martagon lilies.

The flowers are beautiful, but many Lilies have a nasty sting in the tail, as the orange pollen from some species - the “Stargazer” or Oriental Lilies are particularly known for this – can stain clothing and furniture. Luckily, all you have to do to prevent this, is to snip off the stamens when you bring them inside for arranging.

Lilies Can Kill!
Well, like so many “poisonous” plants, the toxic properties of Lilies are often exaggerated, but it is well documented that some Lilies can be very bad for your health indeed.

Convallaria majalis (Lily of the Valley) has a darker side – eating it can cause irregular heart rate, confusion, diarrhoea or vomiting.

Likewise Gloriosa superba, which is known as the climbing lily or glory lily, contains compounds that makes your mouth, throat, tongue and lips go numb. If you manage to swallow it, things get even worse, as ingestion can result in paralysis of the nervous system, which can be very bad indeed.

In a similar way, both Zantedeschia and the indoor Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum cannifolium) contain Calcium oxalate, a substance which makes the tissues of the mouth become swollen and irritated, and which can cause difficulty with swallowing.

And going back to those Stargazer lilies, many species of Lilium and all species of Hemerocallis contain toxins in the flowers and leaves that are bad for us, fatal to cats, and quite nasty to dogs: despite the fact that Lilium bulbs are starchy, and in many cultures are eaten as root vegetables! This should not stop you buying Lilies as cut flowers, but make sure to remove the stamens (the pollen is easily transferred to your pet's coat, then ingested when they next groom themselves) and pick up any fallen petals or leaves, and dispose of them.

The Lily in popular culture
Lilies have been cultivated for over 3,000 years, and in the world of plant symbolism, they stand for humility and devotion: however, they are most often associated with funerals, where they symbolise the idea that the soul of the departed has had innocence restored after death, and is now at peace.

Despite both of these ideas, Lily has been a very popular girls' name for more than a century, and in the last couple of decades has become one of the most-used of the “flower” names.

So when is a Lily not a Lily?
Apart from the genuine Lilium genus, our Plant Finder shows that there are a staggering 61 genera, all with the word Lily in their common name! It seems to be a very popular plant name indeed, and usually – though not always – suggests that the flowers are similar to those of Lilium.

Of this multitude of plants, some are very much in the Lilium mould, with flowers sitting on top of a strong single stem – these include Amaryllis, also known as Hippeastrum; Cardiocrinum which is well named as Giant lily; Agapanthus and Pancratium, Paradisea and Cyrtanthus, and Phaedranassa.

Of the ankle-height Lilies, Convallaria or Lily-of-the-valley is probably the most familiar, but the least Lily-like, as it bears short spikes of scented white, bell-shaped flowers. Very similar flowers can be found on Pieris, explaining the common name of Lily-of-the-valley shrub; also on Arbutus, the Strawberry Tree, which is possibly more famous for the fruits.

Remaining low to the ground, there are many short Lilies, including the bowl-like yellow flowers of Sternbergia, and Mentzelia: then we have Zephranthes, Ixia and Admium, the rather weedy-looking white starry flowers of Chlorogalum and the tiny flowers of Arthropodium: the well-known Hosta, the woodland Trillium, and the rather unusual tulip-like flowers of Curcuma.

Gloriosa rejoices in various names: Climbing, Glory or Creeping lily but looks more like honeysuckle in shape and colour.

The unpronounceable Schizostylis (is that Skitso-styliss? Or Sheet-zo-styliss?), which shares the name Kaffir lily with Clivia, is another garden favourite, bearing slender stems topped with individual flowers, available in a wide range of glorious colours: they are rather similar to Sprekelia or Jacobean lily.

Hemerocallis or Day lily have a succession of brightly coloured blooms, each lasting just, as the name suggests, the one day, but appearing in such quantities that this is a deservedly popular garden perennial, as is Alstroemeria, the Peruvian lily, which is available in a wide range of colours (our Plant Finder has well over 40 species).

Hymenocalis have thin, elegant petals and deserve their common name of Spider lily, as does Lycoris: for some reason Pancratium, which really could be called Spider lily, is actually known as Sea lily. Crinum is less spidery, and Tricyrtis would probably also have been called Spider lily if it were not for the extraordinary blotching on the petals, which made Toad lily a more appropriate name.

Lilies with thick fluffy spikes of flowers include Eremurus, Kniphofia, Eucomis and Hedychium (which is the real Ginger lily), Alpinia and Maianthemum: and then there is the rather daffodil-like Eucharis.

Gladiolus, Watsonia and Sisyrinchium all have strong stout flower-spikes with multiple flowers, and they share their sword-like leaves with Iris and Anigozanthos

Dieffenbachia or Leopard Lily is nothing like a Lily at all, being a low-growing foliage plant (and a rather poisonous one, at that): as are Haemanthus and Scadoxus, Darlingtonia or Cobra lily which is as scary looking as it sounds! Other animal Lilies include Erythronium or Trout lily, and Belamcanda which is another Leopard lily.

Phormium, well known as a foliage plant with large sword-shaped leaves, rarely flowers but when it does, the reason for its common name of Flax lily becomes apparent. Doryanthes, the Spear lily, looks like Phormium and Dianella is another Flax lily.

The “proper” Water lily is of course Nymphaea, but can be confused with one of the other Water lilies, Nuphar, for example, or Victoria, the Giant water lily whose leaves are so large that they can, allegedly, support a small child.

Liriope is a genus of plants with grass-like leaves, known as Lilyturf for being a combination of grass, and flowers like a subdued Lily-of-the-valley: it shares the common name with the rather similar Ophiopogon.

So where does the expression “Lily-white” come from? There are several Lilies with pure white flowers, including Zantedeschia, the exotic pure white Calla lily or Arum lily, not to be confused with the rather similar-looking (but less exotic) Arum or common Cuckoo Pint which is found in many woodlands, and quite a few gardens. Then we have Galtonia: and many of us grow the rather similar Spathiphyllum or Peace Lily, indoors. These would definitely qualify as pure white, and now we can see the origin of that phrase “to gild the lily” meaning that if you have something as beautiful and pure as a Zantedeschia flower, you really don't need to coat it in gold: it is sufficiently lovely as it is!

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