Lilium candidum

Linnaeus 1753

Madonna lily

*Lilium candidum* - Hogenson


  • Section: Liriotypus
  • Origin: Balkans, Eastern Mediterranean, Persia (Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Herat, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Haifa, Beirut, Smyrna, Israel)
  • Habitat: volcanic soils, forest edges and coniferous forests in full sun to heavy shade.
  • Type: Mediterranean dryland
  • Status: Common


Lilium candidum has perhaps the largest range of any of the Lilium species. The word 'candidum' means 'dazzling white'. It is perhaps the oldest cultivated lily in the world, being in known cultivation for at 3,000 years. The people of the Balkans call Lilium candidum by the name 'Zambak' (زنبق) (synonyms: kirin, ljiljan). A Persian word from Ottoman Turkish meaning 'lily'. A registered RHS variety called Lilium candidum 'Sultan zumbak' is a geographical variety of Lilium candidum cernuum from the Turkish Caucuses which has been in cultivation for more then 400 years. 'Sultan' is a Turkish Muslim word denoting strength, authority, rulership, derived from the verbal noun سلطة 'sulṭah', meaning authority or power. Both the Latin and Persian names denote a similar meaning, that which is the pure, classic, archetypal form


Lilium candidum has been cultivated by the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Cretans, since biblical times as a food bulb (McRae 1998). It has naturalized in almost all continents of the world, from Europe (France, Italy, Ukraine and North Africa), the Canary Islands and Mexico, as well as other regions.

Lilium candidum has several recognized subtypes. Subtype Lilium candidum cernuum (Weston 1772); Lilium candidum plenum (Weston 1972), and subtype Lilium candidum salonikae (Stoker 1935).

Lilium candidum 'Cascade strain' was grown at Oregon Bulb Farms in the 1950s. Lilium candidum 'Cascade Strain' was the result of crosses made by George Slate between Lilium candidum candidum x Lilium candidum salonikae. (McRae 1998). Other notable crosses are Lilium candidum candidum x Lilium chalcedonicum (Lilium x testaceum the 'Nankeen lily'); Charles Robinson crossed Lilium candidum salonikae x Lilium monadelpum to get June Fragrance (C. Robinson 1971). (McRae 1998)

Description: Lilium candidum is a stout, tough lily. The bulb is white to yellow, and can be very large in older specimens, with thick powerful contractile basal roots. It can live 30+ years if left undisturbed. The stem emerges in spring and rises 2-4ft (80-120cm). The leaves are long, scattered, and broadly lanceolate at the base of the stem, but quickly become short and upright moving upward. The inflorescence is a raceme of alternating large, dazzling, pure white outfacing trumpets with yellow pollen and a magnificent sweet scent. Seed is large and dark brown; germination is immediate epigeal in cool weather and cool soil temperatures.



Cultivation: Lilium candidum is native to areas that are almost inhospitable in the summer months. The bulb naturally goes dormant during the summer months, and sends up a rosette of leaves in the winter months. When spring arrives it sends up a stem. By summer in the searing heat and arid environment, the stem dies down and the bulb goes dormant. The difficultly here is, most people don't live in its natural range. Like many lilies, growing it outside it's natural can be a bit tricky, which is why understanding its life-cycle is so important.

Lilium candidum is not a difficult lily to cultivate, obviously as it's been cultivated for thousands of years. As with many lilies, the key is to just let it be and do its thing. If left undisturbed, it will form massive sized bulbs. Unlike other lily species, Lilium candidum must not be dug in the winter months when the scales are soft and developing. It must be dug in the summer months when its dormant and the scales are well formed and solid (McRae 1998). It doesn't like a lot of organic matter (keep in mind it's native habitat). Rocky mineral soils with lots of sharp grit and rock is its preferred substrate.

Like Lilium catesbaei it doesn't want to be buried deep, if buried at all. It does not want to be wet at all or it will rot. It wants to be dry, very similar to an American dryland species. This doesn't mean it doesn't want water. It just doesn't want to sit in water or be wet for long periods of time. It wants to get a drink and dry out ASAP. Lilium candidum has large powerful contractile roots to anchor it to steep cliffs and slopes, as well as seek out adequate moisture for the plant's needs.

Bulbs often sit half-buried perched out of the ground. This should be a huge flashing red light to growers. Many plants that grow in arid hot environment have adopted this strategy. In these environments the soil retains heat at night when the bulb is most metabolically active. The strategy of perching half out of the soil allows the bulb to cool off sufficiently at night and allow temperature sensitive metabolic process to take place. It also allows for excellent FAE (Fresh Air Exchange) and allows the bulb to dry off quickly after a rain event.

Like many lily species, it's no fragile flower. It has been growing and multiplying just fine without the aid of humans for millions of years. It would appreciate a dry rocky place in your garden. This might be your chance to build that rock garden you've been talking about. Tuck the bulbs in between the rocks in crevices with a little gravel and grit thrown on top. Then just leave it be.

%d bloggers like this: