CONSIDER THE LILIES; THEY ARE SURELY THE MOST GLAMOROUS OF FLOWERS AND MOST COMBINE WONDROUS COLOURS AND PATTERNS.
Lilies are the most glamorous of flowers, combining wondrous colours and patterns with a grace unmatched by any plant in our garden. Their scent is powerful enough to make you weak at the knees.
To find a bulb that is easy to cultivate and reliably produces such spectacular results - often going on year after year - is horticultural happiness.
People have been growing lilies for thousands of years. There are images of Lilium candidum in the art of many ancient civilisations including in Assyrian bas reliefs (let's hope they haven't been destroyed along with so many precious treasures - evidence of what is best about mankind).
This lily figures in Christian art too, in many Renaissance paintings of the Virgin Mary and is known as the Madonna lily. It is associated with purity.
It is grown here but has fallen out of favour as it is not commercially viable. It is unusual in making a tuft of leaves in autumn that stay all winter and from which the stems arise, sometimes reaching 2m tall.
It is unusual in other ways, too, in that it loves to be baked and thrives in alkaline soils. A true cottage garden plant, if you can grow it, do. Despite giving it a try here, it will not grow at Glebe Cottage. If you are lucky enough to find it, plant it shallowly, only a couple of inches deep. Once upon a time, apart from Lilium candidum, lilies were only seen in the gardens of the wealthy. It is only in the past 50 years that they have become popular.
During the past few decades, the lily world has been revolutionised with the breeding of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of new hybrids aimed both at the cut-flower trade and at their cultivation as garden bulbs.
New varieties are introduced constantly by lily specialists, commercial and amateur. As a starting point, they have lilies from all over the world to help them come up with new colours, patterns, habits and perfumes.
Some of these breeding programmes have strange aims - there are attempts to produce double lilies but to me the beauty is in the shape of its flowers. Work is being done to breed lilies that have no pollen - it's true it's a nuisance if you get pollen on your clothes and it can be a killer for cats but the way in which pollen-laden anthers protrude is part of the lily's personality and grace.
Why try to produce stumpy lilies, often with upturned flowers "for the small garden". Since lilies tend to be vertical, why shouldn't we grow taller, elegant varieties that respect and cherish what a lily is? It is always a mistake to assume small gardens must have dwarf plants. Some lilies are truly breathtaking. To wander around the stands of lily specialists at the big flower shows is a rapturous experience.
Lilies make a splash from June to October. My favourites are oriental hybrids, once or twice removed from the graceful species of Japan and China. Most have overpowering perfume and graceful, long trumpet flowers.
The stocky stems and upturned flowers of modern hybrids cannot compare with the elegance of taller Asiatic lilies or the simplicity of Lilium regale, with tall, strong stems and large white trumpets, heavenly scented especially in the evening.
Lilium regale is one of the most reliable and accommodating of all. It puts on a good performance even in my heavy clay, although I love to grow it in big terracotta pots. They are half filled with loam-based compost and, as the lilies begin to shoot, I add more compost.
Pots full of lilies add a splash of colour to July and August borders. Plant in good-looking pots and stand directly in borders to mask the demise of early performers. Or grow in big plastic pots and drop into a decorative outer pot to take up their final positions. Try this with autumn-flowering lilies such as l.speciosum, whose pink spotted flowers with reflexed perfumed petals come into their own in September.
Pure, graceful and with a heavenly perfume, fill big pots with lilies to bring a splash of colour and an exotic feel to your garden.
ASIATIC... Gorgeous Lilium 'Nerone'
ELEGANT.. The ever-reliable Lilium regale