Most gardens can use a visual lift in the dog days of late summer. This is where late-blooming lilies come in. When their voluptuous, often deliciously scented blooms make their grand entrance in July and August, it’s like a royal fanfare in the landscape. Goodbye, garden doldrums.
Thanks to the efforts of breeders, late-blooming lilies flower in a wide spectrum of luscious colors, from white to yellow to pink to red, with all manner of hues in between. They also come in many sizes, with the smallest measuring only a foot tall and the grandest towering to 6 feet or more. While the former are useful for containers and bedding schemes, it’s the giant late-blooming hybrids that are the true glory of the dog-day garden. Their enormous clusters of large, sumptuous blooms on eye-high stems are almost beyond belief (as is the fact that they grow from relatively modest-sized, scaly bulbs).
Better yet, they’re easily cultivated, with most lilies thriving in full sun and fertile, humus-rich, well-aerated soil in USDA Hardiness zones 5 through 8 (excessively sandy or clay-heavy soil should be amended with a good compost, such as Fafard Premium Natural and Organic Compost). All bets are off, however, in areas that host the dreaded red lily beetle. Where this insect abounds (mostly in the Northeast), lilies can be more of a chore than they’re worth, requiring hours of hand-picking of the glossy scarlet adults and their repulsive, excrement-coated larvae. In other parts of their hardiness range, lilies have few enemies, although viruses and large herbivores (particularly deer) can sometimes cause problems.
The summer lily season opens in spectacular style with the stately Trumpet Hybrids, renowned for their gigantic, fragrant, funnel-shaped blooms that take after the Chinese native Lilium regale. The popular Golden Splendor Strain produces 6-foot spires of rich lemon-yellow trumpets with burgundy-stained exteriors, while the equally popular (and showy) Pink Perfection Strain sports rose-pink funnels with gold throats. Many other splendid Trumpet Hybrids are offered by bulb merchants (including several that specialize in lilies). Lilium regale itself is well worth growing for its immense white flowers with maroon reverses (pure white forms are also sold).
Some hybrids in the Trumpet tribe have nodding, mildly scented, “Turks-cap” flowers that evoke the group’s other important ancestor, Lilium henryi. Among the best and most widely offered of these is ‘Lady Alice’, with white, purple-flecked, gold-starred flowers on 4- to 6-foot stems. There are also several common species worth seeking out. The classic “tiger lily” (Lilium lancifolium), with its black-spotted blooms of clear orange, is tall, clumping, and looks its best in August.
The Oriental Hybrids come into prominence in early August, as the Trumpets fade from the scene. Their freckled, seductively scented flowers with back-curved petals show the influence of their two primary parents: raspberry-pink-flowered Lilium speciosum and white, yellow-banded Lilium auratum var. platyphyllum. Most Oriental Lilies have nodding or out-facing flowers, but exceptions occur, as evidenced by arguably the most famous lily hybrid, ‘Stargazer’. The glowing crimson-rose, white-edged blooms of this 1974 introduction look up from 3- to 4-foot stems in early August. Other outstanding and renowned Orientals include white ‘Casa Blanca’; lilac-pink, lemon-striped ‘Tom Pouce’; white, rose-veined ‘Muscadet’; and white, gold-striped ‘Aubade’. All are of similar stature to ‘Stargazer’.
Hybrids between Oriental and Trumpet lilies (known as “Orienpets”) combine the best features of both groups, bearing swarms of large, fragrant flowers on lofty stems. A winner of the North American Lily Society’s popularity poll, the Orienpet ‘Anastasia’ flaunts white, rose-brushed, heavy-textured flowers on 6-foot stems in early August, giving the effect of a high-rise Lilium speciosum. The cultivar ‘Scheherazade’ sports a similar look, but with raspberry-red, lemon-edged blooms. ‘Silk Road’ (also known as ‘Friso’) is more suggestive of a Trumpet Lily, producing white, rose-throated, funnel-shaped flowers with burgundy-flushed exteriors in mid-July. It’s a four-time popularity poll winner.
Now is the season not only to savor the beauty of late-blooming lilies, but also to order some of their bulbs to plant this fall. The payoff next summer will be well worth the investment!