Lilies (and Callas)

So extensive and beautiful is the genus Lilium, so varied in form, color, and periods of blossoming, that, like the daffodil, a garden might be made up composed of it alone.

– George H. Ellwanger, The Garden’s Story, 1889

Of course, I wouldn’t choose to banish all flowers other than lilies from my garden. I would regret the loss of roses, peonies, columbines, clematis and so many more, but if I absolutely had to choose only one, though surely not to take to a desert island with me, the lilies wouldn’t be a bad choice. There are just so very many of them. They come in every size. Some of them are very fragrant. Many of them are edible, though some are poisonous.

In spite of their delicate appearance, they can thrive in difficult conditions, returning year after year to delight us. I once came across an Oriental lily “Casa Blanca” on the far side of our far meadow, in a dry spot in a very dry summer. I had planted the bulbs some years before, but the plants had never bloomed because the deer gobbled them up. I had given up on trying to grow anything in that spot, but one day there it was: this magnificent white lily, as fine as anything to be found in a florist’s shop.

Lilies In A Vase, watercolour, 9" x 12"

“Casa Blanca” lives in a pot on my deck now, and does surprisingly well there. It is undemanding and beautiful. We like to drink our morning coffee on our sunny deck while gazing at these amazing flowers and breathing in their delicious fragrance. There are many varieties of Oriental lily, including the deservedly popular “Stargazer”.

The fritillaries I talked about in my last post are members of the Lily family, too. So is the Mariposa lily (Calochortus), though this flower has a shape almost exactly like a California poppy. The papery look of the two flowers is similar, but the subtle colours and delicate markings of the Mariposa Lily could never be mistaken for the bold orange colour of the California poppy.

The name  “Calochortus” is derived from the Greek and means “beautiful grass”. A number of species are threatened by development or grazing and some are rare or even extinct. I’ve planted bulbs of Calochortus Venustus (White Mariposa Lily) and Calochortus Superbus, and I’ve had some success but, to be honest, I’ve had more failures than successes. The Mariposa lily does not like a lot of rain during the winter when it is dormant, and that is a condition difficult to meet in my garden. Still, I keep trying because the flower is so lovely. I have grown Mariposa lilies in clay pots on the deck, with shards under the soil to provide drainage.

Mariposa Lilies, watercolour

The genus also includes the romantically named Calochortus Albus (the “Fairy Lantern“), which I have only seen in photos. If you are interested in trying your hand at growing Mariposa lilies and want information on their culture, have a look at this site.

Another member of this large family is the Camas lily. Many years ago, on my first visit to Vancouver Island, I fell in love with the landscape: the sparkle of blue sea viewed from the vantage point of high rocks sparsely covered with Garry oaks, Arbutus trees, lichen, moss and wildflowers.

“Rock outcrops occur in Garry oak ecosystems in many forms: rocky shorelines with grasslands, rocky islets, coastal bluffs above the shore, and rock outcrops interspersed through woodlands and meadows”. (Garry Oak Gardener’s Handbook, Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team). Beneath the canopy of Garry oak trees grow the Great camas (Camassia leichtlinii), the Common camas (Camassia quamash) and the Chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis, also known as F. lanceolata). The quamash was a food source for many native peoples in the western United States and Canada. Warning: it is easy to mistake the poisonous, white-flowered Death Camas (Zygadenus, also a member of the Lily family) for Camassia quamash, since the two plants grow near each other.

Finally, we come to one of my all-time favourites: the Calla lily, which is not a lily at all. Their proper name is Zantedeschia aethiopica, and they are native to southern Africa. It is surprising that they grow so well on southern Vancouver Island, although perhaps it should not be, since the Calla loves moisture. I have seen them growing in large clumps in sunny spots against the walls of Art Deco houses in Victoria.

These tall, elegant flowers are beautiful outdoors or indoors: they make wonderful flower arrangements, by themselves or combined with other flowers. Like the tulip, the Calla lily has a simple form that is easy to draw.

Calla Lilies 2, watercolour

Calla Lilies, watercolour


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