Lilies: An Essential Element

by Diane McGann

Lilies are the one constant in the most stunning gardens that I’ve toured. Vibrant, colorful, fragrant lilies, grown in large swaths and reaching to the sky. Realizing a woeful lack of lilies in my own garden and wanting it to be stunning, too, I learned more about these effervescent plants, including how to grow them in my mostly shady landscape.

If you’re like me, you may be confused about what exactly belongs to the lily family. Does the genus Lilium include daylilies? Which ones are most colorful? Which are most fragrant? Will they work in shade? How do I keep the display coming? There are five lily divisions that work well in our northern gardens, each with its own special characteristics. Here they are, listed in order of bloom time.

Martagons are a popular choice for shade gardens. They grow best in filtered light and need only about two hours of direct sun a day. Martagons are the first lilies to flower, usually around Father’s Day. A species lily (meaning those originally found in the wild), its mostly down-facing flowers hang pendulously from the center stalk.

Asiatic lilies are a good choice if you want your plants flowering at a time when not much else in the garden is blooming. Most Asiatics open in early summer after the peonies fade, and they’re a good size—2 to 3 feet tall—for the middle of the border. I love that they offer brilliant color—think deep reds, oranges, purples and yellows. For this reason, the Asiatics are my first choice among lilies.

Orienpets, a hybrid of oriental and trumpet lilies, usually begin blooming during mid-summer, right after the Asiatics fade. Most reach 6 feet in height and combine the best characteristics of both parents—large flowers plus fragrance.

Oriental lilies are famous for their alluring fragrance but, unfortunately, aren’t as long-lived as the other divisions. Orientals grow 3 to 4 feet tall and bloom mid- to late-summer. Their color offerings are softer, more pastel, and many display speckled petals. A member of this division, ‘Stargazer’, is the most popular lily in modern history.

Trumpet lilies are also deeply fragrant, and they bloom at the same time as the orientals, mid- to late-summer. Stretching 6 feet tall, they stand like soldiers in the back of the border.

While these are the lily stalwarts, we have other choices as well, such as the recently introduced Asiatic-oriental lilies. They offer the bright colors of Asiatic lilies with the larger flowers and taller habit of orientals. Longiflorum-Asiatic lilies, reaching 4 feet in height with a light fragrance, are hybrid crosses between longiflorum lilies, the variety to which our Easter lilies belong, and Asiatic lilies. They display thick, smooth petals and upward-facing flowers.

And no, the genus doesn’t include daylilies, which are similar in flower appearance but belong to another genus, Hemerocallis.

Growing Tips
Other than being deer candy, lilies are easy to grow. They prefer well-drained soil, shady feet and at least six hours of sun, although they can usually tolerate some shade. While you can successfully plant bulbs in either spring or fall, the North Star Lily Society recommends planting orientals in spring and martagons in the fall. Lilies multiply readily, so if you don’t have the quantities you want, wait a year or two, and you’ll be rewarded with new bulbs, which will soon turn into baby lilies. If you choose from the different varieties, you’ll have blooms all summer long. They make great cut flowers; be sure to bring some inside so that their alluring fragrance can permeate your home.

Gather more information from and to see which lilies might best meet your needs, and then head to the nursery. With an abundance of lilies, our gardens will be standouts, too.

Grow Spring 2022 Lilies-03


Diane McGann is a Stillwater-based master gardener and an award-winning garden writer.

Looking for more information on a gardening topic? Search our Resource Hub to learn more.


MSHS Reversed Online logo