Monday, June 16, 2008

Lilium regale

Lilies are a varied group, so varied that it does not make much sense to pick one favorite. But throughout my life as a gardener, Lilium regale has always been high in my esteem. It’s typically the first of the trumpet lilies to bloom, and that’s a good thing in itself: most of the other trumpet lilies are taller and more imposing. If Lilium regale bloomed later it might not make such a good impression.

It has an interesting history. At the beginning, it was not recognized as a distinct species, and the first plants in cultivation were grown under the name Lilium myriophyllum. E.H. Wilson’s famous account of bringing the first shipments to the West down out of the mountains of western China must be the most frequently quoted passage in all of his writing – and with good reason.

Given the wealth of lilies we now enjoy, it’s hard to conceptualize the state of lilies in gardens a century ago. One had basically two choices: lilies collected from the wild were the fashionable choice. Many of these quickly proved to be intractable. The other choice was made up from a collection of dismal virus-infected hybrids, most of which had flower colors fairly described as either harsh or muddled.

The gardening world lacked a good, easily grown, handsome, fragrant garden lily. Several early introductions such as L. speciosum, Lilium henryi, and the tiger lily proved to be easily grown. But the latter two are not noted for fragrance, and Lilium speciosum, while it’s one of the most fragrant of lilies, presents cultural problems which have kept it out of the truly easily-grown class. Another early introduction, the clonal Lilium brownii, was as elegant as any lily but also unpredictable as a garden plant. Lilium longiflorum was widely regarded as a greenhouse plant, not a garden plant. Lilium hansonii, introduced early in the second half of the nineteenth century, was as easily grown as any lily, but it’s not the sort of lily to fire the public imagination.

It quickly became apparent that Lilium regale had it all: ease of culture, fragrance and poise. Early in the twentieth century there was a keenly pursued effort to establish this plant as a viable floriculture crop here in the United States. It wasn’t until the early 1920s that affordable bulbs began to become reliably available. Soon it was in all the catalogs and books and in a lot of gardens, too. Unlike so many other lilies introduced at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, Lilium regale has been in continuous cultivation since its first introduction.

It was one of the first lilies I grew as a child. I still remember buying the bulbs at a local grocery store about fifty years ago. The bulbs came two or three in a box which had slits cut into the sides and no packing material. The bulbs were free to shift around inside the box. When I examined them, they were very dark purple-black and somewhat shriveled. Such roots as they had seemed to have been cut back. They were bought in the spring or early summer, and they made indifferent growth the first year. But they eventually bloomed and introduced me to one of life’s small but keenly appreciated pleasures. I can look back on a half-century of lily growing now and realize that a lot has changed. In so many ways things are much better than they ever were in the past. Yet I’m happy to say that the annual flowering of Lilium regale provides as much pleasure as it ever has, even if the plants blooming now are not those purchased so many years ago.

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