Madonna Lily – The Loveliest Lily

The Madonna lily, Lilium candidum, has been cultivated in gardens for a long time over 3,400 years. Such popularity is richly deserved for it is the loveliest lily in existence. Fortunately it is also one of the easiest to raise successfully in ordinary garden soil.

It is a particularly good choice for our America gardens because it is one of the few lilies which grow satisfactorily in slightly alkaline soil. There are just two important factors in its culture; the bulbs must be planted shallow and they should be planted in August or by the middle of September at the very latest.

This beautiful white lily blooms in June during the same period that roses and delphiniums are in their glory. Each well grown lily plant produces a sturdy, leafy stalk from four to six feet tall surmounted by a cluster of five to 12 waxy-white trumpets. Even the buds are decorative, green with white tips, producing the effect of a natural candelabrum. Because the open, funnel-shaped flowers face directly outwards at approximately eye level and the four-inch petals flare at their tips, the beauty of the blossoms is most effectively displayed. You miss none of their beauty and fragrance. The pure white of the petals is relieved and enlivened by six bright orange anthers in the throat of each trumpet.

blooming of Madonna lily

Although the Madonna lily is so strikingly handsome that it may be and often is grown by itself as a conspicuous garden feature, it is even more attractively displayed in combination with other plant material. An aristocrat among flowers, it deserves the companionship of other peers of the garden realm. Its intrinsic beauty is enhanced by planting it in front of green hemlocks or junipers, then facing it down in front with low-growing varieties of rhododendron such as the white-flowering hybrids. Where rhododendrons cannot be grown, white roses will substitute.

If these plants are edged down in turn by a low border of hardy, evergreen candytuft, lberis sempervirens, which blooms from late April through June, a complete and restful composition in green and white is achieved. There is sufficient variation in foliage texture to avoid any hint of monotony. In order to obtain a continuity of white flowers throughout the growing season, one has but to work in a few plants of pure white phlox and white cushion chrysanthemums.

Mixing with Color

Where a more colorful garden picture seems desirable, it is difficult to imagine a brighter, more charming composition than the traditional one of Madonna lilies, pink roses and blue delphiniums blooming together in June. You can plant the delphiniums and lilies to form a background for lower growing roses. Although pink bush roses may be a favorite of mine maybe you will find an opportunity to plant the lilies and delphiniums in front of pink-blooming climbing roses. For the delphinium in these garden pictures my choice is the light blue hybrids, but many gardeners prefer to use the old favorite Delphinium which is a darker blue.

The reason that Madonna lily bulbs should be planted during August, or certainly by the middle of September, is that this energetic lily takes only a brief rest after blooming and ripening its foliage. Early in the fall its basal-rooting bulbs send up flat rosettes of evergreen leaves that persist over winter. From those leaves the bulbs apparently derive a substantial portion of the energy which enables them to send up sturdy stalks and multiple blossoms so comparatively early the following season.

Because this is a remarkably obliging plant, the bulbs will almost always survive and even produce flowers next June if they are planted considerably later than they should be. But the flower stalks will be shorter and weaker and the blossoms will be inferior.

Only when large healthy bulbs are planted as soon as possible after they become obtainable in August do they have time to make sufficient new root growth to produce a full complement of fall foliage and so insure the highest quality of bloom the following season. The number of flowers per stalk the first season depends largely upon the size of the bulbs which are planted.

Plant Them Shallow

The other tremendously important factor in planting Madonna lily bulbs is not to plant them too deep. Their handling in this respect differs markedly from that of most other species of lilies. Madonna lily bulbs should never be covered more than two inches deep, measured from the tops of the bulbs to the surface of the ground. Even in very sandy soil two inches is enough. In heavier soils an inch to an inch and a half is plenty.

The kind of soil in which you plant the bulbs is relatively unimportant because this amenable lily tolerates a broad range from sandy to quite clayey and from slightly acid through neutral to mildly alkaline. It should be reasonably fertile. This lily’s tolerance of lime soil is helpful because in such a soil the plant nutrients tend to be more accessible to the roots than in an acid soil. It should be borne in mind, however, that the fact that this lily tolerates some lime does not necessarily mean that it requires lime. I do not advocate application of lime to the soil before planting Madonna lilies.

If the soil is exceptionally sandy or gravely or if you suspect it may be low in fertility, you can spade in deeply a generous quantity of moisture-retentive humus such as well decomposed compost, leafmold from a nearby woods, thoroughly decayed manure or some peat before you plant the bulbs. Avoid letting even old manure come in direct contact with the bulbs, however. If peat is used or if, as will usually be the case, no additions to the existing soil are necessary, a light application of a completely organic plant food mixed into the ground before planting will prove beneficial. If your soil is clayey or if you have any doubts about its being well drained, place a handful of sand beneath each bulb and another handful around it at planting. As soon as the bulbs have been planted, water the ground thoroughly to bring the soil into firm contact with the bulbs and avoid the possibility of air pockets being left under them.

Guard Against Disease

To be on the safe side, avoid planting your new Madonna lily bulbs in the same spot where that or other species of lilies, possibly diseased, have grown recently. If planting them in such a location is unavoidable, you can remove the old soil to a considerable depth and replace it with fresh, fertile, sandy loam mixed with ample leafmold, compost or similar humus.

Madonna lilies are hardy, robust, disease-free plants under normal conditions. Once planted, they will continue to grow and blossom year after year with very little attention. About the only disease for which one should be on the lookout is botrytis blight. Its occurrence is indicated by small brown to reddish brown spots on the leaves. Usually the spots are darker, sometimes gray at their centers. If not remedied, the leaves eventually shrivel and drop off, thereby weakening the plant. Fortunately the remedy is simple. It consists of nothing more arduous than spraying the plants with Bordeaux mixture in mild dilution. Several applications at ten-day intervals or following every heavy rain are recommended.

If insect pests attack the lilies, which rarely occurs to any serious degree, you can control them with the same spray or dust with which you combat similar pests on other plants in your garden. If you grow your Madonna lilies with roses, enough of the general spray you use on the latter will drift over the lilies to protect them fully.

Like all lilies, Madonnas appreciate a permanent mulch to keep the soil cool and moist and to discourage germination of weed seeds. Start right after planting the bulbs by applying a two- to three-inch layer of peat, pine needles, oak leaves, buckwheat hulls or coarse compost. You can even use chopped straw or sawdust if you mix in a light dusting of a nitrogenous fertilizer at the same time.

You will always be glad you planted the lovely Madonna lily in your garden if you start with the best bulbs you can get, plant them in August in a well drained location and cover them no more than two inches deep. Try to assure a continual supply of moisture all the time the plants are in active growth. You will probably want to remove the old flowers as soon as they go by, but the foliage should be left to mature in order to produce food for storage in the bulb. A little organic plant food scratched into the surface of the ground among the lilies each year and the permanent mulch, supplemented annually, will keep the plants healthy and floriferous.


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