September, as the blooming season winds down here in the Northern hemisphere, is both an exciting time and a sad time. We enjoy the largest, most fragrant, and most loved species such as L. speciosum, but we also know that the end of the season is near. In this edition of the Lilium Species Foundation newsletter, we have two articles for you. One is a quick overview of Gordon's story with growing species Lilium, starting in 2013 with some bulbs and seeds, and spanning seven years, during which a lot of species matured and flowered. We also have an exciting trip report from Bret Hansen. He visited several of the natural sites where some of the Western American species thrive, and returns with some excellent stories and photos.
Growing Lilium species, a personal journey
I have been growing Lilium species for about six years. People ask me why I grow lilies at all, and why I grow the species. I was originally attracted to lilies as part of an overall effort to set up a thriving organic, permaculture garden, with many food plants such as vegetables and fruit, but also many supporting plants such as native trees and shrubs, as well as flowers to attract beneficial insects, and create a sense of abundance and beauty. The idea of using lilies in such a garden was appealing, because of the size of their flowers, their diversity of color and form, and, in my area in Western Washington State, the fact that there were native species to my area or areas farther south with a similar climate. It also turns out I have a good climate and soil for growing a pretty wide variety of lilies. My site has sandy, well-drained soil and is in the cool, generally moist foothills of the Cascades.
I acquired a few bulbs at the beginning, because some species are available as bulbs, and who would want to wait for seed to grow, if bulbs are available? I quickly realized that the majority of species would have to be grown from seed, because most species are only available as seed. For most species, it takes three or more years to grow a lily from seed to blooming size, so it was good to have some bulbs at the beginning to start the collection. I started with auratum, speciosum rubrum 'Uchida', pardalinum, hansonii, humboldtii, a few others. I was able to acquire bulbs from lily specialists such as The Lily Garden and B&D Lilies, both here in Washington. I also found a few species bulbs from native plant nurseries.
My journey with seeds began with seeds acquired from The Lily Garden, which included some of the commonly grown species from seed. One group included pumilum, dauricum, davidii, and regale, for sowing in flats for immediate germination. The other group included martagon and kelloggii, which are delayed hypogeal germinators. As a bonus, Judith also sent me tsingtauense seed. I also had some Lilium columbianium seed, which is the only native Lilium where I live. I followed Judith Freeman's instructions for germinating the hypogeal species in plastic bags, and soon had seedling bulbs. I planted the epigeal seeds and dauricum (an odd one out, immediate hypogeal) in flats under lights indoors in late winter. If you're interested in the details of germinating and growing species Lilium from seed, see my article in the Spring 2020 newsletter.
I had mixed success with those first-year seedlings. Dauricum did pretty well. Regale is supposed to be easy, and it was vigorous throughout its time in the flat under the fluorescent lights, but it failed to transition to outdoor pots when I potted the walnut-sized bulbs up in the fall. I have since switched from flats to small pots, so you don't have to disturb the roots when potting up to the next size pot. I found out that planting out in spring is better if you have potted seedlings. Leave fall for planting purchased bulbs, or transplanting full-size bulbs in the garden.
The martagon and tsingtauense plants survived well in pots and are still doing fine. Some have been planted out in the garden. I had read that it takes seven years for martagons to reach blooming size, but I had the first blooms after only about 4 years.
I joined several seed exchange societies, including some overseas that required me to obtain an import permit. Once you get used to the permit procedures, it's not a problem, and I was able to access seed for species that weren't available in the U.S. It wasn't long before I had more seed than I knew what to do with, having ordered surplus seed in the exchanges of many different genera. I made the typical beginner mistake of starting way more seed than could be managed. The lilies got my care and attention, and I was starting to be able to keep them going in pots for several years, and filling up more and more raised beds. I'm now struggling to keep up with the growing lilies, since I started more than I should have.
In the first few years, I made some contacts through online groups, and got good growing advice and good seeds, so I was able to plan better growing situations for seed starting and planting out. At first, I dug holes in unmaintained areas and planted bulbs in them. This usually produced a blooming stem in the first year, if the bulb was mature to begin with, but over time, those plantings failed to thrive. I had problems with mice, moles, and voles eating some of the bulbs, so based on experienced grower's advice, I created a few very secure raised beds with sandy soil, 2 x 12" sides, and wire mesh underneath to protect against burrowing animals.
My garden is on a southwest-facing slope with several terraces. There are areas of full sun and some areas with shade. The best for many lilies is a tree to the south a distance away to provide shade in the heat of the afternoon. I use a mix of dedicated raised beds for lilies, ordinary garden beds of sand/compost mix planted only with lilies, and I'm starting now to also experiment with mixed perennial beds with some lilies along with other plants. I like the look of lilies with other plants, and robust, mature lilies do well with companion plants that shade the ground around them. I'm very unsure of what plants do well as companions to what species of lilies, but candidum is doing well and looks great with feverfew and California poppy.
The easiest species for me were davidii, dauricum, bulbiferum, lancifolium, martagon, regale, sargentiae, candidum, pardalinum and its subspecies and varieties, and maritimum. These have all bloomed reliably every year. I can now add speciosum and auratum to that list.
I was very interested in the Western American species and have tried to grow as many as I could. Washingtonianum has grown, but slowly and hasn't bloomed; rubescens cannot abide the wet, and I now keep it indoors. Oddly, the native species columbianum has generally not thrived for me. Out of quite a large number of attempts with seed from different sources, only a few have survived to blooming size. Eastern species canadense, grayi, superbum, have had large losses when planted out in the fall, and for me have not survived nearly as well as the Western American wetland species.
Some are just slow. Szovitsianum and kesselringianum finally bloomed for me, after six or seven years from seed. Ciliatum seems to be doing pretty well in the garden, but hasn't quite reached full size yet after about five years.
I have struggled against fungus gnats indoors in the seed pots, slugs, mice, deer, rabbits, and even a mountain beaver outside, and continue to have weak points in my overall growing strategy. Fencing is a must, but my fencing is not done yet, so I still get visits from deer. This has resulted in some setbacks and losses. I'm fine with germination and growing in pots, through to the second year, and I'm doing well with growing in gallon pots outdoors. I usually transfer the seed pot to a gallon-size pot as soon as it starts sending up stem-like growth, rather than basal leaves.
Some seedlings grow on in pots, but I also plant lots of seed pots directly into the raised beds. Survival of many species is good, but some I no longer plant directly from seed pots into raised beds, because of low survival: auratum, speciosum, Western American dryland species, and Eastern American species. I now grow these to larger size in gallon pots before planting out. If planting out into ordinary garden beds, I think it's best to use gallon-sized potted lilies that are grown to blooming size. And, I only plant in April and May.
The garden has a drip irrigation system, but not all species are on the drip irrigation. Some I allow to dry out or water them by hand. In the future, I intend to expand the garden with covered beds for the lilies that are susceptible to excessive rains, and I also plan a new garden area on a northeast-facing slope, which will stay cooler for some species that thrive in those conditions, like japonicum and rubellum.
It's been an exciting journey. One of the most interesting things is finding an unexpected form or color than you were expecting. I have an interesting and beautiful recurved from of L. maritimum, and I've seen an unexpected yellow dauricum.
This project has required a fair amount of time over the years, and involved some hard work. I probably spend about 8 hours per week on gardening, including weeding, planting, tending seedlings and potted plants. The lilies take up a good portion of that, but I also grow some vegetables, medicinal plants, and fruit trees. In retrospect, I'd probably recommend starting fewer species and reducing the number of lilies in the seedling stage. They take the most of my time, due to the regular watering requirements. But enthusiasm is a hard thing to reign in sometimes, and when you join those seed exchanges, you'll always end up with quite a bit of seed, so it can be difficult not to try growing it all at once.
Growing Lilium species has a reputation for being difficult. The rationale for hybridized lilies was that species were difficult to grow, and hybrids could be a lot more robust and disease-resistant. What I've found is that my climate is great for many species of lilies, and I have found satisfaction growing those species that do well for me. If you're thinking about trying to grow species, I encourage you to try it out. You almost certainly won't succeed with every species you try, but if you follow good advice from other growers, and learn from your mistakes, and invest in a good seed-growing setup, you'll no doubt have a diverse and fascinating collection of Lilium species.
Bret's lily trip in Oregon and California, 2020
Every year, I try to get south to go lily hunting. I don’t always make it, but most of the time I do. In years past (before children), I would takeoff with a few dollars in the pocket, stay at whatever dive motel I could find or camp, whatever was cheapest and eat about the same. Now that I have a daughter, that has changed, for the better. First, it’s much nicer to stay in motels with swimming pools, and Izzy has turned out to be quite the lily hunter. In fact, she spotted more lilies then either Rachel or myself.
My route is one I’ve been doing since 1998 when I first went liliy hunting. I got locations from Eddie of course, and the legendary Boyd Kline of Medford, Oregon. Some of the locations were so far off and gone I was convinced that at any moment I might fall off the end of the earth. But they were always right, there were always lilies where they said there would be lilies. I had to wonder what in the world would have made anyone drive to these gods forsaken locations in the first place and look for lilies? There had to be sources closer to civilization. The anwser I discovered from Boyd Kline was simple. In his case, he was looking for rhododendrons, in particular R. occidentale (Western Rhododendron). Rhodies are fire chasers (they require regular fire as part of their ecology). He was driving to places that had burned several years before. And as I’ve noted, western lilies, too, are fire chasers. So, it was really a matter of by-product, not purposeful intent, that they found lots of lilies in areas that had recently burned.
This year we stopped first at Izzy’s favorite beach, Sunset Bay State Park along the Oregon coast, which also has several nice populations of Lilium occidentale nearby as well as growing right along the road, so access was pretty easy. I won’t say exactly where the populations are for obvious reasons. It’s a critically endangered species. But the populations we saw were very healthy and doing well. L. occidentale is no fragile flower. It’s a tough liliy that can reach a height of 7-8ft with 20-30 flowers. It grows in the drier parts of sphagnum bogs with water usually just a few feet away. In other locations, it grows in fairly dry soils with Sitka spruce just feet from ocean cliffs and Pacific. Though the soil is dry, the weather is not. Along the Oregon coast, there’s always fog. You can set your watch by the fog rolling in around noon or so and blotting out the sun. The temperature plummets, and it’s a nice, cool mist, which is the norm on the Oregon coast. The fog collects as condensation on the lilies and plants and falls as precipitation and keeps the plants pretty well watered. Conditions which are not easy to reproduce. In fact, L. occidentale will almost certainly die if it’s kept wet during the growing season. Very similar to L. pardalinum. So, it needs to dry while in active growth, but have water available.
The bulbs perch themselves above the water table, and the roots reach down deep for water. In many locations, it’s obvious that the area is a seasonal wetland and the bulbs are underwater for a time in fall and spring before the ground dries out in summer. Here you can see why hydrology is so important and one reason the liliy is endangered. Wetland species don’t necessarily like wet conditions; they just tolerate it better than another species. The seasonal flooding helps remove competition and maintains the open environment the lily needs. Where it grows along roadways and near developments, drainage ditches and wells for cranberry farming, and irrigation for golf courses all alter the hydrology and threaten the lily. Also, L. occidentale relies heavily on fire to remove competition. And that’s an issue, since many populations are right off the road or near communities where it’s impossible to do prescribed burning.
After swimming and exploring at Sunset Bay, we set out south to Crescent City, California. I like Crescent City. It has a nice energy to it, and it has only Starbucks for 80 miles. We got our hotel, checked in and went exploring. You’re right in the middle of the redwoods there so you have to explore the trees. There are lilies everywhere, mainly L. columbianum. After a bit, we decided to go see what we could find.
There’s no shortage of roads to explore. We turned off the Bigfoot Highway (Hwy 199) and started climbing up into the mountains. It didn’t take long to leave the lush temperate rainforest and get into dry rain shadow. This is where L. bolanderi grows. It’s hard to imagine that with just a few thousand feet, the landscape can change so much. It was dry, dusty, no redwoods to be seen, just tons of manzanita, lodge pole pine, scrub brush, and rocks. As we drove, we got into lots of bear grass and the trees just seemed to vanish. Izzy spotted the first bolanderi. It was just a little seedling but once you see one your brain gets that pattern recognition and you start seeing lilies everywhere. This area was burned by one of the worst fires in Oregon state history almost 20 years ago, the Biscuit fire (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biscuit_Fire) which burned over 500,000-acres. It’s amazing that after 20 years there still not much growing, but the lilies and rhododendrons love it!
Lilium bolanderi is a true western American dryland species. It has leaves that resemble a succulent more than a lily. They’re thick and fleshy with a heavy cuticle to help retain water. It tends to grow low to the ground in open areas probably to help minimize its exposure to the searing sun. It grows taller, up to 5-feet, when it’s growing in other vegetation that can shade it from the sun. The leaves turn almost straight upward, probably to help drain away any water from the frequent thunderstorms, as well as shade the stem and maintain internal leaf temperature and humidity by exposing the stomata to the sun. The underside of the leaves are silver-green while the tops are deep blue-green to brown. With the leaves turned upward the reflective undersurface of the leaf no doubt shades the stem while the dark upper surface absorbs heat. This of course would set up a temperature gradient within the leaf, the stomata being on the cooler underside.
The bulbs grow deep, 10 inches or more. But, we noticed that like other West Coast lilies where we found it, we also found evidence of groundwater. The vegetation changed in these areas from barren pines to ferns, false hellebore (Veratrum sp.), and other low vegetation. The soil was dark red, rich with iron and surprisingly moist. As with L. occidentale, the bulbs were almost always perched on steep hillsides or in rocks, but the roots plunged deep for water. The bulbs want to be dry yet cool, so they bury themselves among the rocks and other vegetation, in areas with groundwater This sets up a natural AC system which keeps the bulbs cool yet provides lots of fresh air exchange (FAE) to keep them dry and well-ventilated.
We stopped at a bend in the road where there was an old mine shaft and a small creek. There was also a seep nearby with lots of Darlingtonia growing in the road ditch and all over the hillside. We explored a bit and found an old abandoned mine shaft. Growing all over with the Darlingtonia, was L. pardalinum ssp. vollmeri. We took a few pictures and continued on.
After a wrong a turn and 15 miles in the wrong direction in the middle of nowhere, we got lucky and spotted some campers. We stopped and asked for directions and after backtracking, got back on the right course. We continued back home north. We stopped at several Darlingtonia bogs we spotted along the side of the road. At all the locations there was L. pardalinum ssp. vollmeri. Now here is a lily that really likes it wet.
Of all the lilies I’ve seen in the wild L. pardalinum ssp. vollmeri grows in some of the wettest places. We’re not talking moist, we’re talking soggy saturated mud and muck, and in the water itself. At one location along the side of the road it’s growing out of the crack in a cliff under a waterfall, similar to the abandoned mine shaft location earlier. The water is always moving and cold. It’s not uncommon to see it growing in 6-inches or more of water. It’s almost always growing with Darlingtonia (cobra lily) which should tell you a lot about its requirements.
Anyone who has tried to grow Darlingtonia will tell you it’s not at all easy. But where it grows, it does so very well. The key seems to be dissolved minerals, nutrients, and water temperature. Darlingtonia despises hard water. The water is always flowing and cold. These are nutrient-poor areas, and as such Darlingtonia hates nutrient-saturated (hot) soils and water. L. pardalinum ssp. vollmeri flourished in these habitats growing right in the middle, side-by-side with the cobra lilies.
As the day got shorter and the 8-hour drive home was still ahead of us, we called it a day and headed home. Next year, I hope to go back to a few places I’ve visited before and follow up and see how the populations are doing and check out a few places I haven’t yet. Like the L. bolanderi hybrids, or the L. occidentale x L. kellogii hybrids. It’s always an adventure, we never know what we’ll find.