Lilies come in many guises – from elegant to odd

Elegant blooms of Easter Lilies from seasons past. (Contributed photos)

Rain, blessed rain freed me from the misery of asthma and allergy symptoms which held me trapped in the house. For three days, I spent hours toiling in the garden – raking leaves and laying down hardwood mulch on paths. I have been reacquainted with muscles long forgotten. Unfortunately, Mother Nature decided I was having too much fun and sent a late season cold front with high winds that sent me scurrying back inside. There is still so much to do! 

Easter has come and gone with church on TV and family on FaceTime. Easter has always been a time spent with the family. We would gather at the ranch for good food and fellowship. The grandchildren would arrive with baskets in hand to race around laughing and hunting for the colorful eggs left by the Easter Bunny. Then we would load up in the gator to take the little ones fishing and to see the new calves. Next year, bigger and better! 

The regal trumpets of the Easter lilies (Lilium) will be late this year. The buds are just beginning to lengthen and fill out. I love the fragrance that fills the garden at twilight, white blooms shimmering like fairy lights as evening falls. 

My father’s backyard was filled with the stately blooms. After he passed away, I dug up a large clump of bulbs to plant in my garden. It is comforting to see them bloom and remember him.

Lilies have an extensive history of over 5,000 years. Semitic tradition says the lily sprang from the tears of Eve when she was cast from the Garden of Eden and found she was to become a mother. Ancient Christian lore claims the lily was yellow until the Virgin Mary picked it. The lily symbolizes purity, chastity and innocence and has come to represent the Resurrection and Easter. Thousands of years before the elegant white lily came to be called the Madonna lily, it was considered a sacred flower. It represented motherhood and was the emblem of the chief goddesses of many ancient religions. During the prehistoric Minoan period of Crete (300 B.C.) it was the sacred symbol of Britomartis, goddess of birth and health. The flower was emblematic of the goddess Hera of ancient Greece, goddess of women and childbirth. In Rome it was the symbol of Juno, goddess of marriage and motherhood and referred to as “Juno’s rose.”

The Madonna lily (L. candidum) is possibly one of the oldest domesticated flowers. The lily was used by Cretan artists for elaborate designs in frescoes and in geometrical designs on vases during the Middle Minoan period (2100 – 1580 B.C.). The Roman, Virgil, gave them the name candidum which means “pure white, shining.” Greek and Roman brides and grooms were crowned with wreaths of lilies and wheat – representing a pure and fertile life. The association of the lily with the Virgin Mary dates from a tradition that when her tomb was visited three days after her burial, it was found empty except for the roses and lilies that filled it.

The great artists Titan, Murillo, Botticelli, Correggio and Fra Angelico painted the white Madonna lily in their representations of the Annunciation and other pictures depicting the Virgin.

Lilies come in many guises and have a number of close relatives – some elegant and other distinctly odd. Common names can be misleading and botanists using scientific names don’t always agree on their classifications. Lilies are closely related to the Amaryllis and Iris families. Yuccas and agaves sometimes appear in the lily family. Adding to the confusion – rain lilies, spider lilies and copper lilies belong to the Amaryllis family, but dog’s tooth violets belong in the lily family. Calla lilies and water lilies don’t belong but Asparagus, onion, garlic and leeks are members. Ornamentals include tulips, hyacinths, day lilies, lily of the valley, aspidistras, Turk’s caps and snowdrops.

At one time the Madonna lily was imported and cultivated as the Easter lily. Nurserymen found another white lily (L. longiflorium) easier to make bloom at the proper time. This lily came to us from Japan and (L. regale) from China where the sweet and sugary bulbs are eaten. The bulbs are used to make ointments for the treatment of tumors, ulcers and external inflammations.

Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis) grows wild in some parts of Texas. The delicate white, bell-like flowers of the lily are prized for their beauty and fragrance. The long flower stalk inspired the name “our Lady’s tears”, and medieval monks noting the arrangement of the blossoms on the stalk called it “ladder to heaven.”

Placed under the dominion of Mercury by Clupeper, it was claimed the plant “strengthens the brain and recruits a weak memory and comforted the heart and vital spirits.”

According to Greek myth, Apollo found the lily of the valley and gave it to Aesculapius for its medicinal properties. Water distilled from the flowers was called Aqua aurea (golden water) and was considered to possess great curative powers and stored in vessels of gold and silver. In the 20th century a drug resembling digitalis, though less potent, was obtained from the lily valley plant and used to treat soldiers who were exposed to poison gas in World War I.

Texas has two colorful species of Lillium which are found on opposite sides of the state. The wood lily (L. phiadelphicum), considered one of the most attractive lilies in the United States, grows in the Trans-Pecos in the canyons of the Guadalupe Mountains. Carolina lily (l. michauxii), a favorite of monarch butterflies, is found in the pine and oak woods in southeastern Texas. Both plants have orangey red, purple spotted blossoms.

The showy orange lily with black spots, tiger lily (L. tigrinum) is another favorite. It was brought from the Orient for the Kew Gardens by William Kerr. In Japan it is called the “ogre” lily. In Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll depicted them having disagreeable traits. When Alice says to the tiger lily, “I wish you could talk!’ the tiger lily snaps, “We can talk when there’s anybody worth talking to.” According to Korean legend, a hermit removed an arrow from the foreleg of a tiger and they became fast friends. When the tiger was near death it begged the hermit to use his magic to keep it near him after death. The hermit turned the body of the tiger into the tiger lily, and when the hermit drowned some time later, the lily spread over the land looking for its kind friend.

The elegant white trumpets of Easter always bring me joy and sweet memories. Add a few of these beauties to your garden and start your own memories.

Happy gardening. 

Texas Master Gardener Columnist: Down the Garden Path

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