What is a true lily? There are numerous flowers that have been commonly called as lilies; many plants that do not actually belong to the lily family are called lilies whereas some genuine lilies are not even called that. Onions, for instance, belong to the lily family whereas calla lily is a relative of skunk cabbages (the arum family). At present, there are 19 genera and 610 species in the family Liliaceae according to the APG III classification system. The coveted lily flower belongs to the genus Lilium which has 33 species.
So, how does one identify a true lily? Flowers in the lily family have three sepals (often resemble the petals but show slight green or brown tinge on the outer side) and three petals (collectively called tepals). The ovary is hidden inside the funnel like part of the blossom and the leaves have parallel veins. The plants can be propagated by from bulbs that are made of loosely overlapping scales. The stems are covered in leaves which will fill the bulb scales with enough food to produce flowers the next year. If these scales are removed and planted in sand, they will develop baby bulbs. It is therefore, a good idea to cut-off the flowers with a short stem.
Lilium candidum, also known as Madonna lily, is the type species or the representative plant of this family.
Easter lily or Bermuda lily(L. longiflorum) is a popular cut flower. This plant is endemic to Ryukyu islands in Japan. It was brought to the USA till 1920s from Japan via Bermuda. Several dwarf cultivars of Easter lily that can be grown as potted plants have been developed by USDA.
Tiger lilies are orange with black spots and curl their petals backward, much like a tiger's claw. This group includes L. catesbaei (also known as leopard lily, pine lily, southern red lily or Catesby lily) and is native to Florida, L. columbianum found in Western North America (know as Columbia lily), L. henryi (Henry's Lily) native to central china, L. lancifolium (Syn. L. tigrinum) found in northern Asia to Japan and L. superbum (turban lily, Turk's cap lily, Swamp lily or American tiger lily) found in eastern and central America.
The Royal lily or L. regale represents the white trumpet group. This group is very hardy and easy to raise from seeds. The dwarf scarlet Coral lily (Lilium tenuifolium syn L. pumilum ) is one of the first to bloom. It is generally red colored with black spots and is small compared to other lilies. The blooms of Lilium maculatum syn. L. elegans (Elegans lily) open upwards in clusters at equal heights and is native to central and northern Japan. Lilium canadense (Canada lily, Wild yellow Lily or Meadow lily) is a native of eastern North America and has slightly flaring bell like corolla.
L. philadelphicum is native to North America. It is also known as Wood lily, Philadelphia lily, Western Red lily or Prairie lily.
Lilies have enjoyed a great deal of attention due to their lovely form, ease of propagation and range of colors. Being as widespread as they are, they have attained various symbolism in different cultures. The Greeks believed that the white lilies were created from the milk of the mother of the Gods, Hera. Roman Catholicism regards lily as the symbol of Mary's immaculate conception and the flowers were frequently used to adorn the pictures of Virgin Mary. For a very long time, lilies were favored as flowers for the dead due to their strong fragrance.They were placed on graves as a symbol of pure soul's resurrection. In Spain, it was believed that eating the petals of lily flowers could restore human form. A Korean legends tells the tale of a hermit who removed an arrow from a tiger's leg thus befriending it. Many years later when the tiger died, its body was transformed into a lily. After the hermit died, the tiger lily spread far across in search of is friend. Lilies have, thus, come to symbolize purity, innocence, humility, virginity, strong powers, goodness, faith, hope and charity.
William Blake has so beautifully summarized the loveliness of The Lily:
The modest Rose puts forth a thorn,
The humble sheep a threatening horn,
While the Lily white shall in love delight
Nor a thorn nor a threat stain her beauty bright.
All pictures are taken from Les Liliacees:1802-1816 by Pierre James Redoute.