Lilium henryi

Trying to sort out the various kinds of hybrid lilies is a good way to bring on a headache. Which to choose? Asiatics? Trumpets? Orientals? Orienpets? Come to think of it, why are there two separate categories called Asiatic and Oriental? (I’d love to have a word with the genius who dreamed up that distinction.)

Let me suggest that we sidestep this nomenclatural morass and head directly for the door marked “species,” for it is here that some of the best lilies are still to be found. For enlivening these sultry weeks of late summer, it’s hard to beat the Chinese species Lilium henryi, named for the Irish plant explorer Augustine Henry, who in 1888 found it growing in the limestone gorges near Yichang in Hubei province.

There are many things to like about this lily. It is tall and graceful, usually growing from four to six feet on strong, arching, purple-brown stems. It is tough and undemanding, needing only sun (with, ideally, a bit of afternoon shade) and a humusy, well-drained soil on the alkaline side of neutral (remember those limestone gorges?). It blooms late, and consorts well with the ornamental grasses and big, burly composites that dominate the border in July and August. The flowers themselves are pendulous, with strongly recurved tepals, and borne on thin pedicels. Their overall color is a soft orange that flatters just about everything—even strong pinks, if you’re not too squeamish. For good measure, they sport a dusting of dark spots and rows of strange, fleshy papillae that bring to mind a Jacques Cousteau special.

The purple-tinged, fist-size bulbs can be planted in either fall or spring. There should be about eight inches of soil above the bulb, and if your soil is acidic, work a couple of handfuls of ground limestone into the immediate area. If you add lots of compost every year, you probably won’t need to do any extra feeding; I like to apply a light sprinkling of a low-nitrogen granular fertilizer in early spring, just as the stalks emerge. You might be tempted to stake the arching stalks so they’ll be bolt upright, but I think the plants look more at ease when propped up by nearby shrubs (purple smokebush is dandy) or other tall perennials.

Although L. henryi is free from most pests and diseases, if you live in New England you will have to contend with the disgusting and voracious scarlet lily beetle. I go on lily beetle patrol every morning before breakfast, taking a savage delight in squishing the clusters of orange eggs and squirting the adults and excrement-covered larvae with insecticidal soap. Blood sport is not something you usually associate with gardening, but life takes many strange turns.

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