This topic includes tips on the care of members of the genus, Lilium, which includes those plants that grow from a scaly bulb. It does not include daylilies which are members of the genus, Hemerocallis, and grow from a crown rather than a bulb.

There are many different types and sizes of lilies for the home landscape. Click on the genus name above for more information about the various species and cultivars. Fortunately, most of these bulb plants need the same type of care and propagate in basically the same ways.

Among the numerous types of lilies, the vast majority prefer a full sun location. Many will tolerate some shade and a few, especially the martagon lilies actually thrive in the shade. The plant will tell you what it needs since it will bend toward the light. This will cause the stems to become artificially long and weak which results in the need for more staking. Given the proper light conditions, a lily should stand on its own.

The depth at which lily bulbs are planted depends on their size. A good rule of thumb is to plant bulbs 2 to 3 times their height in depth. In other words, if the bulb is 3 inches tall, it should be buried at least 6 inches deep and, if the soil is sandy or is a good, friable loam, up to 9 inches below the surface. Another way to look at it is that the top of the bulb should be around 4 to 6 inches beneath the soil.

If bulbs are too shallow, they may be impacted by winter temperatures or may be damaged by alternating freezing and thawing known as heaving. Bulbs that are too deep in the soil have to exert more energy in the process of emerging each spring. This may cause a loss of vigor or, in the extreme, may cause the loss of the bulb entirely.

Tulips and other bulbs generally come without any roots attached. This is not the case with lilies which usually still have roots when they arrive from the dealer. Generally, American produced bulbs will have these roots and overseas sources might not. Some people believe that the lack of roots, although not horrible, will prevent the plant from establishing itself as fast as those planted with viable roots attached.

If you purchase bulbs locally and can inspect them, be sure to buy ones that show no signs of damage. Certainly, there should be no sign of insect damage or rot. The bulbs should be supple and not dried out.

Lily bulbs should be planted in the fall as soon as you receive them in the mail or buy them locally. This may extend right up to the point when the soil freezes. Most of these species require exposure to cold temperatures for a period of time or they will not bloom. Also, it is always better to get the bulbs into the ground rather than trying to store them in the house.

If you get the bulbs too late or can't get them planted for some reason, you can put them in ziplock bag with some very lightly moistened sphagnum peat and put them in the refrigerator. That way, when you pull them out for planting in the spring, they will have been properly chilled and should bloom that year. However, this is clearly less preferable to getting them into the ground in the fall.

Like all bulb plants, lilies need to have a soil that gives them adequate water but must also be well drained. Too much water in the soil will lead to rots while too little water results in a plant of low vigor. This can be accomplished by incorporating plenty of organic matter into the soil and placing a thin (1-2 inch) layer of mulch over the planting.

Fertilizer - The general rule of thumb is to avoid using high levels of nitrogen fertilizer on the lilies. This may cause excessive foliage growth at the expense of flowering. It is always best to get a soil test done by your local land grant university or Extension Service office to get a base of information on you soil's fertility. Lilies, like most plants, thrive in a slightly acid soil in the range of pH 6.0 to 7.0 and do not have any special nutritional needs. In the absence of a soil test, 2 pounds of a 5-10-5 fertilizer applied per 100 square feet of bed should suffice. Make an application in the spring as the new foliage pops out of the ground and again around bloom time.

Staking - Most types of lilies will not need to be staked. However, some of the very tall ones that produce large flowers may need some support. Also, if the plant is in a windy location or is not given enough sun to fill its needs, it may need help supporting the floweers.The easiest way is to attach a green colored bamboo or fiber stake to the stem to give it more strength. Be sure to tie it in at least 3 places up the length of the stake. Using only one or two attachments will allow the stem too much movement and will actually add to the possibility that it will break over.

After the blooms have fallen apart (shattered), it is best to cut off the flower scape to prevent seed formation. Unless you are a hybridizer, there is no need to allow the plant to go to seed. It can then redirect that energy down into the bulb for next year's plant.

Allow the stem and leaves to continue to grow until they naturally turn brown. The leaves are the source of energy for the plant and, the longer they are kept on the plant, the stronger it will be in the future. Never cut the stem off while it is still green.

  • Botrytis blight is a fungus disease most common in lilies. It causes the death of shoots shortly after they emerge from the soil.

  • Lily virus disease may cause a symptom called mottling on the foliage and a stunted growth. Once a plant is infected, there is no cure. Discard the infected bulbs. It is spread primarily by aphids. Certain species and cultivars are more susceptible than others.

  • Basal rot occurs in soils with poor drainage.

  • Aphids may be a problem especially with their role in spreading the virus.

Lilies may be propagated a number of ways, all of which take time to produce flowering plants:

  1. Division - Like other bulbs, lilies naturally multiply by producing tiny nodules called bulblets on the side of the original bulb. As several smaller stems begin to appear from the original bulbs, it may be time to dig the bulb, separate out the bulblets and plant them in another are to raise.

  2. Seeds - If the flowers are fertile and get pollinated, they will produce viable seed. Each pod can produce several hundred seeds. Harvest them after the pods turn brown in the fall and the seeds do not stick together when the pod is opened. They can be sown in the fall or kept in a paper bag until the following spring. The seeds of some species of lilies take only a few weeks to germinate and grow while others may take up to a year to show signs of life. It will then take several years of growth before a bulb is formed and the plant will flower.

    You can let the bees do the pollinating or you can become a hybridizer and consciously take the pollen from one plant and put it onto the
    pistil of another.

  3. Bulbils - Certain species of lilies produce small, berry-like structures called bulbils. These are borne in the axil of the leaves and may be quite decorative. In the fall, they may be harvested and planted.

  4. Scaling - A lily bulb is composed of a number of scales clustered together. You can peel off a scale and plant it in a tray of vermiculite or potting soil. The pointed end of the scale should be up and the flat end into the media. Keep the tray moist and, eventually, the scale will grow roots and sprout leaves. Again, it will take several years before you have a flowering plant but it is an inexpensive way of getting more lilies especially if time is not of concern for you.

Note: Plants produce with methods 1,3 & 4 will be clones meaning that they will be exactly the same as the original plant. Plants produced from seeds will contain the genetic material of two individuals and will show varying characteristics.

Note: We have provided some general information and observations on this topic aimed at the home gardener. Before you take any serious action in your landscape, check with your state's land grant university's Cooperative Extension Service for the most current, appropriate, localized recommendations.


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