I’ve driven a fair amount over the Catskills in all times of year, and I regret to say that I’ve had very few encounters with native lilies (I am speaking here specifically of the genus Lilium – the trout lily, Erythronium americanum, is one of our most common and beautiful wildflowers but is in a different genus). I know where there are some down by the Bashakill in Sullivan County; and a friend in Greene County has a specimen of Canada Lily (Lilium canadense) on her property which she thinks is probably wild. The day lily (Hemerocallis fulva), often called “tiger lily,” is pretty ubiquitous as a garden plant, and has escaped to various roadsides in the Catskills but is not native. The native lilies are tall and upright, with a single central stem and orange flowers hanging down at the top like coathangers.
This makes a perusal of the 1970 Ulster County Flora all the more depressing. There two species of native lily, Canada lily and Turk’s Cap Lily (Lilium superbum) are both listed as “common” roadside plants. I don’t think they’ve been extirpated from Ulster County by any means, but I’m also sure they’re not common anymore. Both species grow four to six feet tall and have numerous orange-red blooms four inches across. If they’re growing on the side of the road, you’ll see them.
It makes sense that they would once have been common: they’re well-suited to roadside habitat. They like full sun and wet feet, and drainage ditches are perfect for them. But it also makes sense that they are rare nowadays. I have some growing in my garden, and I will attest that deer seem to prefer them to almost anything. This alone would account for their disappearance from our area, in an era where seventy percent of New York state’s forests are not regenerating due to deer browse. Furthermore since lilies are so pretty, some have surely found their way into people’s bouquets and been dug up by badly behaved gardeners. Rodents like the bulbs too. And as technology has improved, highway departments keep shoulders mown more tightly nowadays, and lily bulbs are quickly exhausted by being mown down. There is also a new introduced pest, the Asian lily beetle – a very pretty scarlet bug – which has been chomping down lilies as fast as it can get to them.
Whenever I see a native plant which has gone from common to uncommon in the wild, I think it might be worth trying to cultivate, to see if garden care can minimize the losses to the gene pool. The local lilies are in this sense a good cause. But they are also supremely garden-worthy plants. Their four-inch blossoms might be the nicest of any Catskill native, and well-grown specimens of Lilium superbum can feature as many as thirty blooms. Lilium canadense, meanwhile, features a whole range of colors from the quite yellowy to quite entrancingly red, with beautiful leopard-spots on the inside of the flower. Neither of them bloom for very long – about two weeks is the maximum, as is true for the lily bulbs you can order from bulb growers – but they are exquisite. What’s more, their deep roots and linear architecture make them easy for interplanting. I find they work especially well with cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).
They are not commonly commercially available. None of the large-scale native-plant distributors (like Sunny Borders or Plant Group) grow them, and Bill Cullina from the New England Native Plant Society says they are too slow-growing for general commercial production. They don’t seem to perform well in pots either: I got my initial stock at Catskill Native Nursery, a great local source for rare native plants, and even in the first year my plants began outperforming all the nursery stock in pots.
But I can’t buy a large number of plants retail. If I want to grow a fair number of plants on my property and share them with friends, I need to grow plants from seed. I tried it a couple of times in the past with lilies but never had any success. I scattered the seeds where I wanted new lilies to grow, but I never had so much as a single volunteer come up. Recently, I decided to pay more attention to propagating them.
For anyone attempting to propagate native plants, I recommend Bill Cullina’s New England Native Plant Society Guide to Growing and Propagating Native Wildflowers. All the information really needed to grow lilies from seed is there.
Lilies are what Cullina calls “type C germinators,” meaning plants that require first a warm-moist period and then a cool-moist period before they begin to grow. The seed ripens late in the season, after the warm part of the year is over, which generally means they will take two years to germinate. I was willing to be patient. I gathered seed in the fall but did not get around to processing the seed until February (my wife had twins that January, so I had other things to do). The seed is thin and papery and a single bloom can produce hundreds of seeds. I placed a large quantity of seed in a gallon-sized ziploc bag filled with dampened seed-starter mix and then pretty much just left them alone. They were left warm and indoors until April, when I put them in an unheated and uninsulated indoor area. There they went through all the temperature variations of the Catskills until fall, when I took a look at them again. Some of the seeds had noticeably changed: in the center of the seed a little round bulblet had formed. I put them back and let them go through the winter until this past January, when I moved them into a warm, heated space. Slowly but surely they began to germinate. In fact I am now finding it hard to believe how many of them are germinating, given the fact that the seed is 18 months old. As the germinants become noticeable in their ziploc bag I move them to plug flats. So far I have moved more than 115 brand new lilies, and more are on the way.
Never having done this before, I waited until the bulblets actually sent out a cotyledon before transplanting them. This always involves at least some losses: the tiny plants are very fragile, and some stems get broken and don’t recover. What’s more, they have to go from the dark ziploc bag to full sunlight, which has to be done gradually. I now can say that probably every seed which formed a bulblet has gone on to sprout, and so I would say the best thing to do is probably to transplant all the little bulblets into plug flats immediately and put them in sunlight, so the exposed leaves don’t require a careful human-managed transition from darkness to light.
Plenty of things can go wrong from here: I fear mice and voles in particular, I will confess. But it’s clear that I’m going to have hundreds of little tiny lily bulbs this spring. I don’t trust myself, so I give seedlings away to friends: when they’re scattered over a dozen or so gardens, some of them will survive and prosper. And I’m sure some new ones will survive and be part of my garden for future years.
Now that I’ve been through the process, I’m looking around for an online source of seed for Lilium philadelphicum, the wood lily, which I think is the most lovely native lily of all. I’ve tried to grow it in the past and failed. The wood lily features upward-facing flowers with gaps between the petals – unusual and beautiful.