Sunday 25 February 2018

Diarmuid Gavin: Luscious lilies

Plan ahead now so you can enjoy one of the most beautiful plants to grace our borders next summer

Long history: Lilies have been popular plants for thousands of years
Long history: Lilies have been popular plants for thousands of years

Diarmuid Gavin

We often associate flowering bulbs with spring, when daffodils, tulips and snowdrops herald the end of winter season, but some of our most showy summer flowers also come from bulbs. Soon garden centres will be displaying selections of lilies in flower.

It may be hard to believe but now is the time to plan for garden lilies. They're one of the most beautiful plants to grace our borders, statuesque stems dripping with trumpet flowers. Often fragrant, their giant flowers bring excitement and elegance to the garden in summer. They are easier to cultivate than they look and wonderful for creating a dramatic impression.

So, if you didn't get any in the ground in autumn, plan on planting some this spring. If your ground is very wet at the moment, it's probably better to wait until the excess water drains away... otherwise the bulbs may rot. A top tip is to sprinkle some horticultural grit at the base of the bulb to help keep it cosy and well drained. You can also plant them in their pots in the soil and then lift before winter to keep them dry.

Lily bulbs are bigger than most bulbs and should be planted deep - they like at least six inches of soil which is rich in humus over them. An exception is the madonna lily (Lilium candidum) which has no stem roots. These should be planted just beneath the soil surface now (from late July to early August).

This lily has a long history as a garden and decorative flower - it can be seen in frescoes which date back to 1550BC on the walls at the Palace of Minos in Knossos, Crete. Introduced by the Romans to these islands, it became a symbol of purity and chastity and eventually associated with the Virgin Mary, hence its common name.

With the explosion in plant hunting in the 20th century, many beautiful lilies were discovered, cultivated and crossbreed by nurserymen, resulting in new and beautiful hybrids.

There's now a large range to choose from, with different colours and contrasting flower shapes, ranging from the beautiful scented trumpets of Lilium regale to the Turkish cap styles of the martagon varieties, and, of course, the many spotted tiger lilies.

There are compact varieties for the smaller garden or skyscraper varieties that will grow to six feet in the first year!

In my garden I'm awaiting the flowers on some recently introduced Asiatic hybrids including 'Cancun' (inset), which has vibrant yellow petals, tipped with red and orange, perfect for a hot border. I also like the look of 'Patricia's Pride', white blooms with deep purple centres.

My very favourite lily is one which I haven't attempted to cultivate... yet!

Cardiocrinum giganteum, also known as the Giant Yunnan Lily, is a spectacular plant, which produces glorious vanilla scented, trumpet-like flowers on stems of up to two to three metres in height.

It originates from forest floors in China, so will thrive in moist, semi-shaded positions. Producing two-inch thick stems, it has dinner-plate-sized leaves and flower-spikes bear glowing 15cm to 20cm (6in to 8in) long lily-like, creamy-white blooms that have a claret stripe in the throat. Flowering in June to August, they are held above the green foliage which often has a bronze/purple tinge. It's a showstopper which is grown in many Irish gardens, most notably Mount Usher in Ashford, Wicklow, where it can be seen at its best in early July.

Lilies bring exotic beauty and are ideal for small gardens as they do well in pots and containers. Lilium 'Black Beauty' is a wonderful example - deep red turks cap flowers with black stamens and stems. This can reach over 1.5 metres in height but if that's not dramatic enough for you, try a tree lily. These are sturdy creatures which grow as tall as 2.5 metres, with one bulb producing up to 30 scented blooms.

Lily bulbs are best planted in autumn, or spring if your ground is very cold and wet during winter. But a warning to pet owners - lilies and daylilies are toxic for cats. Even brushing against the pollen, which they later lick off and ingest, can cause them problems.

Lily bulbs are not problem free - the lily scarlet beetle does the most damage. Being bright red, these beetles are easily spotted and should be removed. Their eggs overwinter in leaf litter so good hygiene around the base of these plants will help.

Most lilies will prefer their face in the sun and their feet slightly cool so a mixed sunny herbaceous border is ideal. However, there are shade-loving species such as the martagons. Always check when you are buying what conditions they like - many prefer neutral to acidic soil but some, like the madonna lily, prefer lime.

A general rule of thumb is that the oriental lilies like acidic soil and the Asiatic prefer it alkaline. Deadhead after flowering but leave the stem to die back naturally as you would with other herbaceous plants. Division every three years will rejuvenate.

Other gardening notes

Last week the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, an initiative that addresses the worrying declines in Ireland's bee populations, released a set of guidelines on how everyone can make their gardens pollinator friendly (

By taking simple actions, your garden can become a place where honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees can find food. Some solitary bees might even make their tiny little nests there. The most important thing you can do in your garden is to ensure you have some bee-friendly flowers in bloom from March to October. Comfrey, lungwort, lavender, catmint and heather are all great food sources for bees.

Cutting your lawn slightly less often to allow wildflowers like dandelions and clovers to grow is another simple, low-cost action you can take. It's also important not to use pesticides that are harmful to pollinators.

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