Growing Lilium species, a personal journey

by Gordon Hogenson

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.

Lilium kesselringianum

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.