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Planting "Wild" Lilies

by Ray Allen, Founder,

Many wildflower gardeners enjoy planting the "Wild" or Species Lilies... the ones that are the ancestors of all the lovely hybrids enjoyed today. These lilies are native in various environments worldwide, so planting method is very important.

Most gardeners find these lily bulbs somewhat smaller than many of the hybrid bulbs, which is normal. Also, since they are literally "wildflowers" many of them are tough, durable lilies that you should enjoy for years, as long as you find a spot for them where they are "happy." In the right location, most of these garden gems will spread into growing clumps and you can enjoy them for decades. Good luck with your species lilies.

Golden Rayed Lily of Japan
Martagon Lily
Rose Red Lily of Japan
Regal Lily

Help from a famous expert:

The following is excerpted from "A Plantsman’s Guide to Lilies", a really good book by the well-known lily expert, Michael Jefferson-Brown, who has grown them all.

Picking the spot, and preparing the soil: Once you've determined that the lily is winter-hardy in your region, consider your soil. As for the soil itself, most lilies enjoy soil that is rich and "woodsy", which means somewhat acidic. If your soil is alkaline, you should attempt to change it if possible. (Rhododendron and azalea food will help.) Two species lilies, in particular, simply insist on acidic soil (L. speciosum and L. auratum) but others are more tolerant. Martagon and the old Tiger Lily are fine with almost any soil. The number one requirement for all lilies is good drainage. (Only the Leopard Lily is an exception here.) Most wild lilies come from very leafy mountain hillsides, where low growth shades the lily’s roots, but allows the flowers to bloom in full sun. That sort of environment also ensures plenty of moisture, but complete, perfect drainage. No standing water, please! I like to plant lilies in partial shade between shrubs, and along treelines. Of course, some, like Tiger Lilies, are magnificent right out in the open.

"When you’re ready to plant, take the time to prepare the soil at least 10 inches deep. Dig it thoroughly, remove the rocks, and mix in some peat moss. Even though you’re not going to plant your bulbs that deeply, the worked up soil will help them for years. The soil at the very top is also very important, since ‘stem rooting’ above the bulb is just as important to many species as the roots at the bottom of the bulb."

Planting the Bulbs: “Bulbs are probably best planted with twice their own depth of soil over their noses. That means most all lily bulbs should have about 4 in. of soil above the bulb. As for spacing, tough plants like The Leopard Lily, Tiger Lily, and Martagon Lily will quickly make the area their own; they need space to flex their muscles, (spread) so give them plenty of room, spacing them at least 12 to 15” apart.”

Mulching and feeding: “Lilies revel in mulches. They enjoy the insulating layer over their roots as well as the fresh root run for the stem roots and extra feed that is going to be provided as the mulch rots. If you can manage two mulches, one in late spring and another in mid summer will do a world of good. Pure peat is ok, but lack nourishment. Well-made compost is best. These two times are also good for feeding. The type of fertilizer to pick is one of those recommended for tomatoes or potatoes, often higher in potash and phosphorus than nitrogen.”

Watering: “Lilies are not fond of having their leaves splashed with water and dirt. In fact, good soil structure and mulching should maintain health even through dry periods. However, if you water, water the ground and not the lily, and do a good, thorough soaking job of it.”

Staking: “Grown with success, some tall lilies will need support. If you use stakes, be sure not to pierce the bulb when you plunge the supports into the ground!”  

Species Lilies to add to your Wildflower Meadow

Garden Classic: The Black Beauty Lily

The famous Black Beauty lily is not really a species lily, but a famous early cross between two of the others below. It’s a hybrid of Lilium speciosum var rubrum and L. Henryi, two very important wild lilies from the orient. Black Beauty has famously dark red, hanging, lantern-like flowers, and is great for naturalizing. Handle the Black Beauty bulbs the same as you would any hybrid lily. Plant in a place with perfect drainage and full sun or partial shade.

Black Beauty Lily

The Original Oriental: The Rose Red Lily of Japan

Lilium speciosum var rubrum

The famous “Rubrum Lily” is a species that works perfectly well along with oriental hybrids. If you’re growing Star Gazer or Casa Blanca, handle this one the same as those. Although it is quite adaptable, this lily is a “lime-hater” which means it likes acidic soil. You’ll find acid soil where rhododendrons thrive, usually places that are rich with woodsy soils. If you have alkaline (or limey) soil, you may want to add some rhododendron food to the area for this lily.

Rose Red Lily of Japan

The Original Tiger Lily

Lilium lancifolium (formerly L. tigrinum)

This is the foolproof favorite. Once it’s established, you should have strong, tall stems with multiple blooms of the familiar, large, downward-facing orange flowers…like clockwork in late summer. Any soil will do, in full sun or partial shade. Perfect drainage necessary. This old favorite is from the Far East, but happy and dependably perennial almost anywhere.

Orange Tiger Lily

The famous Martagon Lily from Europe

Lilium martagon

This tough wild lily is one of the best choices for wildflower meadows. “Martagon” means mountain, and this lily’s ancestral home is in the European highlands. It is completely tolerant of any soil, acid or alkaline, and is famous for spreading into clumps, often returning for decades from the same roots. The mature, multi-flowered stalks, when thriving, can reach over 6 feet in height. Bloom is in early to mid-summer.

Martagon Lily

Henry’s Lily, the great discovery from China

Lilium henryi

This is one of the world’s hardiest lilies, and it often persists through years of neglect, so you should have no trouble with it. Remember it grows from 4 to a towering 7 feet high, and some stems actually throw up to 30 orange flowers. The color of this lily fades in the sun, so you might want to give it partial shade. It is tolerant of limey soils, and in fact, if your soil is heavily acid, it may require some feeding to bring it to a more neutral PH. But chances are Henry’s Lily will be happy most anywhere. Like the Leopard Lily, it may need staking when it grows tall, since in the wild, these plants are usually leaning on other tall plants around them. If it needs support, be ready with stakes.

Henrys Lily

North America’s spectacular native Leopard Lily

Lilium pardalinum

This wild beauty is from the moist mountainsides of our Pacific coast. In fact, if you have a spot that may be too moist for some lilies, this one may love it. It’s another great one for a wild garden, and in the right spot, should give you great color in mid-summer for years and years. This is another tall lily that expands into large clumps.

Leopard Lily

The World-Famous Regal Lily of China

Lilium regale

This oriental trumpet lily is one of the few wild lilies that has been cultivated as a garden lily in the same form as found in the wild. Like other trumpet lilies, it may need some staking once the large, fragrant flowers begin to form.

Regal Lily of China

The Golden-Rayed Lily of Japan

Lilium auratum

Almost always considered the most beautiful of them all, this gorgeous, large-flowered native of Japan can be the crowning glory of your garden for years. The experts insist it is not hard to grow, but it hails from thickets in mountains, so once the huge flowers form, it may need some staking. Be ready, and give it extra support if it needs it. Also, Lilium auratum hates alkaline soils. It must have acidic conditions, similar to that enjoyed by rhododendrons.

Golden-Rayed Lily of Japan