Lilies: all about planting & care


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Lilies are among the oldest ornamental plants. We have summarised everything important for you from planting to care and more.

Numerous lily plants in bloom
Lilies are among the oldest and most magnificent ornamental plants [Photo: vitasunny/]

The genus of lilies (Lilium) is probably one of the most magnificent among flowering plants. Their elegant flowers appear from June until the first frost, depending on the species. Probably the most famous among the species is the Madonna lily with its pure white petals. But lilies, with their 150 species and 2000 varieties, have much more to offer than the emblematic white lily flower. In the right location and with a little care, lilies offer an unprecedented variety of flower colours and shapes.

Lilies: origin and characteristics

Lilies (Lilium) are a genus within the lily family (Liliaceae). The perennial plants have a bulb as a survival organ. In the autumn, the lily retreats into them to survive the winter unharmed. The bulbous plants with the striking flowers have their origin in the Himalayas. From here they have colonised areas in temperate and subtropical zones throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Its main distribution area is in China and Japan. Here the lily is still used today as a medicinal and food product. Because apart from the stem, all parts of most lily species are edible. There are also native species in Europe, especially in the Balkans and Caucasus, such as the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) or the Turk’s cap lily (Lilium martagon). In Ancient Greece, the Madonna lily was the flower of Hera, one of the twelve Olympian deities and at the same time wife and sister of Zeus. The lily is said to have been created from milk that was spilled when Hera was nursing Hercules. Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, was so envious of the purity of the flower that she shaped the pistil of the lily like a donkey’s phallus. Also in Christian symbolism, the lily is associated with purity because of its white flowers.

A lilium candidum flower
Madonna lilies are particularly popular [Photo: Manfred Ruckszio/]

The most beautiful and popular species

Not all lilies have white petals like the Madonna lilies. Within the 150 lily species there are representatives whose fragrant flowers shine in white, greenish, yellow, orange or reddish to purple colours. Usually the inner petals have brown to pink spots. The variety does not end with the flower colours. Flowers may be trumpet-shaped, cup-shaped, occasionally tubular or cup-shaped, or nearly closed. There are also so-called Turk’s cap lilies, where the flower resembles a turban. The flowers are arranged singly or in umbels or clusters. A few particularly beautiful species with examples of the variety are:

  • Tiger lily ‘Flore Pleno’: flowering time: July – August; height of growth over 1 m.
  • Oriental lily ‘Scheherazade’: flowering time: May – September; height of growth over 1.5 m.
  • Trumpet lily ‘African Queen’: flowering time: July – August; height of growth over 1 m.

Hardy lilies

Some species of lilies are hardy in our area with simple winter protection, if it does not snow or rain permanently. Most lilies offered in the shops as hardy belong to the Asiatic hybrids. The varieties have many star-shaped flowers that will turn your garden into a sea of blooms from June to July. The plants reach heights of up to one meter and prefer a sunny to semi-shady location with fresh, humus-rich and well-drained soil. Particularly hardy are the varieties ‘Netty’s Pride’, ‘Grand Cru’ and ‘Mapira’. Further hardy as well as particularly beautiful lily species and the ideal lilies for cultivation in pots can be found in this article.

Purple lily with white tips
The ‘Netty’s Pride’ lily has characteristic white tips [Photo: Jiab Ja/]

Planting lilies: expert tips

Enjoying the splendour of lilies in your own garden or in a pot on the balcony is not as difficult as the later imposing sight might suggest. Simply planted in the bed or pot, lily bulbs or pre-cultivated plants will quickly bring you to the long-awaited dream of flowers. It is only necessary to note when, where and how to plant the lilies.

The perfect location

Lilies need a sunny location where they can bathe their blooms in the sun, but keep their roots in cool shade. They therefore enjoy the shade provided by low companion plants. Large lily species such as panther (Lilium pardalinum) or tree lilies make excellent background plantings in perennial beds. Here they are best placed between plain bed partners. Alternatively, a mulch layer of compost or bark humus can be used. But lilies need not only shaded roots to thrive:

  • Location: Sunny to semi-shade; cool with light shade
  • Soil: Loose, well-drained, moist, humic
  • Soil pH: Slightly alkaline or slightly acidic
Lilies with shaded bases
The roots of lilies like to stay in the shade [Photo: Lovelyday Vandy/]

The bulbous plants rot quickly when waterlogged. Therefore, lay out a drainage layer when planting and mix up soil that is too heavy and loamy by adding sand or gravel to the soil. The information on soil and location is very general. The requirements regarding the soil pH in particular differ strongly from species to species. Turk’s cap lilies, for example, prefer calcareous soil, where, on the other hand, the American wild species require lime-free soil. When buying a bulb or pre-grown lily, it is best to always ask for the exact species and variety, so you can respond accordingly to the needs of the plant.

Planting lilies: when and how

Lilies can have their beginnings with you as bulbs, or join you as a pre-grown plant. We have already covered how to go about planting bulbs in the section “Propagating lilies: A guide”. Forced plants are planted in the bed from mid-May. It is best to lay out a drainage layer at the bottom of the planting hole here as well.

Planting lilies in a pot

Small varieties such as ‘Apricot Fudge’ or ‘Mona Lisa’ are suitable for pot culture. These look especially beautiful when planted as a group with a planting distance of about 10 cm in a nice big pot. But it cannot just be any pot. The ideal home for this pretty bulbous plant looks like this:

  • Minimum diameter: 15 cm
  • Minimum height: 20 cm
  • Pot with drain hole
  • Substrate: potting soil (slightly sandy, humus and nutrient-rich).
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Place the pot with your lily in a bright, sheltered spot where the lily will not be exposed to the blazing midday sun. Potted lilies not only look good on the balcony, but also leave a lasting impression in the living room. Only in households with cats are lilies a no-no. If the house cats nibble on the plant, this can lead to kidney failure. In our article “Are lilies poisonous?” you can find out more about this.

Lilies growing in a pot
Lilies can also be planted in pots [Photo: Irina Mos/]


To propagate lilies, you can use two options. Generative propagation by seed usually requires two specimens. Lilies are mostly cross-pollinators. After pollination of the flowers, capsule fruits form which can be harvested in autumn. The seeds they contain are stored in the dark in the refrigerator until sowing. For species with delayed germination, the seeds must be stored for at least one year until they reach germination. In January to the end of February, it is time to sow the harvested or purchased seeds. Lilies are propagated by seed as follows:

  • Let seeds soak in water for 1 to 3 days
  • Sow about 1 cm deep in sowing tray (dark germination).
  • Temperature: 15 – 20 °C
  • Keep soil moist at all times
  • Germination time: Up to 1 year
  • May: planting the seedlings
Lily seeds in pods
This is what lily seeds look like [Photo: Scott Prokop/]

The purchased dried seeds need to swell in water a little longer. For seeds from the refrigerator, one day should be enough. Remember that hybrid varieties cannot be propagated true to variety by seed. But who knows, maybe your very own variety will emerge instead. However, it takes up to five years before the laboriously raised seeds show their faces for the first time and bear flowers.

Somewhat faster flowering and guaranteed true to variety are plants obtained vegetatively via bulbs or bulb scales. If you want to use scales for propagation, part of the bulb base must remain on the scale. The small brood bulbs usually form at the base of the stem. Daughter bulbs or scales are taken during the dormant stage when the plant has retracted into its bulb. When planting directly into the bed, the best time for planting hardy varieties is in the autumn (September). However, planting in spring up to March is also possible. When propagating lilies by bulbs, the procedure is as follows:

  • Planting hole: 2 to 3 times as deep as the bulb is long
  • Planting distance: 15 – 20 cm
  • Mix equal parts sand and mature compost into the excavated soil.
  • Place a drainage layer of gravel or shards of clay on the bottom
  • Lay out layer of soil mixture
  • Place the bulb in the planting hole with the tip facing upwards.
  • Fill planting hole with sand until bulb is covered
  • Fill planting hole with soil mixture
Person holding lily bulbs
Propagation via bulbs is promising [Photo: Sarycheva Olesia/]

Even better, and essential for non-hardy varieties, is to force the bulbs in a pot before moving them to the bed. The pot with the bulb is placed in a dark and cool, but frost-free room until spring. Then, from February, the bulbs can move to a brighter place. When there is no longer a danger of frost, the forced bulb is planted in the bed. In a few species, such as the trumpet lily Lilium puerense or the tiger lilies (Lilium lancifolium), the breeding bulbs form in the axils of the foliage leaves. These bulbs are planted directly into the bed in August.

Lilies sprouting from the ground
The first sprouts of lilies [Photo: ArtSvetlana/]

Note: The bulbs of lilies lack the protective outer layer. Therefore, do not store the bulbs for too long, as they quickly dry out.

Caring for lilies

If you have prepared the soil well before planting and made sure that the roots of the pretty plants are not under water, lilies with a little care will lead a happy life in your garden. After flowering, withered flowerheads should be removed so that the plant does not put precious energy into seed formation. The rest of the faded lily is left until the leaves wither. During the wilting period, lilies shift nutrients from the leaves to the bulb for the winter. If the flowering power of your lily decreases after a few years, it helps to dig up the bulb and move it. With proper care, your lily will return to its usual strength. Helpful tips on caring for lilies can be found in this article.

Watering and fertilising

Lilies are extremely susceptible to stem base rot, so avoid allowing waterlogging to develop due to improper watering. In order for your lily to please you with beautiful flowers for a long time, watering should be done so that the soil is always moist, but never wet. Water regularly, even daily in the summer. In winter, the bed is not watered. For its happiness lily needs not only water, but also a sufficient supply of nutrients. To ensure this, fertilise once a year before budbreak and once during budbreak with low-nitrogen complete fertiliser in the irrigation water. Especially for plants that rarely need fertilising, use an organic fertiliser option. The nutrients remain longer in the soil and a slow-release effect is created. In addition, organic fertilisers are more environmentally friendly than mineral variants.

Person watering lilies in garden
When watering lilies, avoid waterlogging them [Photo: Sarycheva Olesia/]

Caring for potted lilies

Caring for lilies in pots also involves a little skill when it comes to watering. In general, the following applies to the care of potted lilies:

  • Watering: Regularly; daily in summer, but no waterlogging.
  • Fertilise: From June every 4 weeks
  • Pruning: Pruning out wilted flowerheads; cut to above ground after wilting in fall.
  • Winter: Overwinter indoors; water when necessary
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Overwintering lilies successfully

There are hardy as well as non-hardy species of the genus Lilium. Accordingly, the species determines the location during the cold season. For non-hardy lilies in the bed, the bulbs must be dug up after the first frost and stored in a dark, cool (15-20 °C), as well as airy place. Hardy lilies can overwinter in the bed. Pile a little soil at the base of the stem and cover the lilies with a protective layer of straw, brushwood or twigs. Lilies in pots are best stored in a frost-free, dark basement or garage. Potted lilies also need to be watered during the winter when there is a risk of drying out. More about overwintering lilies can be found here.

White Easter lilies
Easter lilies are particularly hardy [Photo: takakophoto/]

Lilies after winter

After the winter, when there is no longer a danger of frost, the protective layer of lilies overwintered in the bed is removed, and bulbs overwintered indoors are planted again. Lilies overwintered in pots are placed in a brighter place from February and can go outside when frosts are over.

Have you not yet discovered the right lily for you? In our review article you will find the most beautiful lily species listed.