In the Liliaceae family, the lily is a perennial herb, growing a new plant each year from its bulb. The genus Lilium has some 100 species of lily. Because of the lily’s popularity as an ornamental and its long history of cultivation, this encyclopedia includes, in addition to this general article on lily, separate entries on the fire lily, Turk’s cap lily, and lily of the field. The encyclopedia also has an article on the aquatic plant the water lily, though it is not a true lily. Being in a separate family, the water lily is not closely related to lily. Indeed, more than 200 plants bear the
name “lily,” only half of them being true lilies. The false lilies include, in addition to water lily, calla lily, anum lily, canna lily, Himalayan lily, and daylily. The word “lily” derives from the Latin Lilium, from which the genus name comes. Lilium in turn derives from the Greek leirion. In French, lily is lis or lys.
Myth and History
According to myth, the Greek god Zeus wished to make the infant Hercules a god. Zeus’s wife, the goddess Hera, objected because the child was not hers. Not to be deterred, Zeus asked Somnus, the god of sleep, to give Hera a sedative. While she slept, Zeus put Hercules to her breast. He sucked so forcefully that Hera’s milk flowed faster than he could consume it. The milk that escaped him splashed into the heavens to make the stars, and that which fell to the ground made lilies. Another myth holds that the goddess Aphrodite, jealous of the lily’s beauty, put a large pistil in the center of the flower, evidently thinking that it would mar the flower. Legend holds that when expelled from Eden, Eve cried. From her tears germinated lilies.
The Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) may be among the oldest domesticates among ornamentals. A painting of this lily, dating to roughly 3000 BCE, adorned the palace of King Minos at Knossos, Crete. This may be the oldest representation of a lily. It is possible, therefore, that the cultivation of the lily may trace to Crete. The flower was sacred to the people of Crete. It was the flower of the Minoan goddess Britamartin, the sweet maiden.
In Iran, King Sargon the Akkadian founded the city of Susa to be the city of lilies. He apparently grew lilies in his garden, and his reference to the lily, dating to 2872 BCE, may be the oldest written record of the ornamental. From Iran, the lily may have spread to Turkey, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, though it seems possible that the lily spread to these regions of the Mediterranean Basin from Crete. Nomads might have spread lilies throughout the Near East because they used the bulbs as food. Uneaten bulbs might have germinated and so formed a new colony of plants. The Chinese and Japanese still eat the bulbs of the tiger lily. The Egyptians believed that the Madonna lily symbolized life. Carvings of what are thought to be white lilies decorated the tombs of the pharaohs. In Greece, the lily was the flower of Hera, and in Rome it was the ornamental of goddess Juno. Representations of lilies decorated Greek vases dating between 1750 and 1600 BCE. The Romans thought that the lily symbolized hope. By one account, the Romans planted the lily in Britain, though according to another writer the flower did not reach Britain until the Crusades. Yet seventh-century CE British cleric Bede the Venerable knew of lilies, leading one to infer that they must have been in cultivation in Britain by then. He thought that the lily symbolized the resurrection of Mary. The white petals symbolized her purity and the golden anthers her soul suffused with light from heaven. Artists depicted the angel Gabriel with lilies in his hands as he told Mary that she would give birth to Jesus. Monks grew lilies in their gardens because of their religious significance. A symbol of goodness and purity, Christians, probably influenced by Bede the Venerable, associated the lily with Mary. In Europe, nobles put the lily on their coat of arms. The University of Aberdeen in Scotland, King’s College of the University of Cambridge, Winchester College, and Eton College, all but Aberdeen in the United Kingdom, have the lily on their coat of arms. (By American standards, Winchester and Eton are schools.) The lily was the flower of Saint Anthony, the protector of marriage.
Magic and Medicine
First-century CE Greek physician Dioscorides recommended the use of lily as an ointment as well as a beverage made of lily to treat snakebite. He thought that lily mixed with honey and applied to the skin eliminated wrinkles. Into the 19th century, physicians extolled the lily as a wrinkle remover. One recommended the mixing of two ounces of onion juice, two ounces of the white lily, two ounces of honey, and one ounce of wax. The mixture was applied at night. Similar uses abounded. In the 14th century, physicians used a combination of lily roots, beans, eggs, wine, and water to remove spots on the skin. In the 17th century, one Englishman promoted an extract of lily to improve the complexion. In the 18th century, women washed their hair in a liquid made from lily.
Other uses were known. To heal a burn one boiled a lily in butter, putting the concoction on the tender flesh. Lily was combined with 57 herbs and the “dust of a black snail” to make a “holy salve.” The physician to British queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) recommended a mixture of lily and barley to treat dropsy. One dubious account advised a person to pick lilies when the sun was in the constellation Leo—between July 15 and August 13—combine them with laurel leaves, and bury them under a manure pile. The lily and laurel leaves would breed worms from which a powder could be made. The possessor of this powder dusted it on an enemy, who would be unable to sleep because of the powder. Stirred in milk, the powder would cause an enemy who consumed it to spike a fever. The powder, fed to cows, prevented them from lactating. When a lily grew on the grave of a person executed for a crime, it proved his innocence.
At Greek and Roman weddings, the guests gave lilies to the bride to ensure her fertility. In the 13th century, Dominican priest Albertus Magnus thought that one could use a lily to determine whether a girl was a virgin, though the details of this procedure are unclear. Others believed that one could use a lily and a rose to determine the sex of an unborn child. The procedure was simple. One offered a lily and a rose to a pregnant woman. If she chose a rose, the child would be a girl. If the choice was a lily, the expectant mother carried a boy.
Attributes and Cultivation
The lily is native to the Northern Hemisphere, though it has been introduced to the Southern Hemisphere. It grows near the equator in India and as far north as Siberia. It survives to-40°F in Canada. It may be found in the mountains of Tibet, western China, and Myanmar, throughout the woods of Europe, and in the marshes of the eastern United States. Lilies grow from sea level to nearly 15,000 feet.
A flower has three petals, three sepals, and six stamens that surround the pistil. A flower may be in every color but blue and black. Flowers are widely spaced, though those of hybrids are more tightly clustered. Lily needs cold winters and warm summers. Where winter temperatures do not fall below 40°F, the bulbs should be refrigerated four to six weeks. Lily does poorly in humidity, which encourages the spread of fungal diseases, among them the troublesome Fusarium
wilt. Lily needs full sun to flower abundantly. It needs well-drained, loose soil. Sandy soil is ideal because it allows roots to expand. Lily does not tolerate heavy soil. Lily benefits from the addition of organic matter to the soil. The gardener may add compost, leaves, grass clippings, pine needles, manure, sawdust, or seaweed to the soil. Sand, dolomite, or gypsum may be added to lighten clay. Soil that is too wet does not provide lily roots enough oxygen. Wet soil also may harbor fungi. Most lily species like neutral or slightly acidic soil, though Lilium candi- dum and the hybrid Lilium X testaceum prefer alkaline soil. Before planting lilies, the gardener may fertilize the soil with phosphorus and potassium. Too much nitrogen causes lilies to produce foliage at the expense of flowers. The gardener may plant bulbs in late summer or early autumn and as deep as 10 inches. The soil should be mulched to retain moisture, minimize weeds, and insulate the soil from the cycle of freezing and thawing in winter. Once growth resumes in spring, lilies should be treated with a complete fertilizer.
See also Fire Lily, Turk’s Cap Lily, Lily of the Field
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Hollingsworth, E. Buckner. Flower Chronicles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.
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Mathew, Brian. Lilies: A Romantic History with a Guide to Cultivation. Philadelphia: Running Press, 1993.
McGeorge, Pamela. Lilies. Auckland, New Zealand: Firefly Books, 2004.
McRae, Edward Austin. Lilies: A Guide from Growers and Collectors. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1998.
Mikolajski, Andrew. Lilies. New York: Lorenz Books, 1998.