Eugene Weekly : Gardening : 9.11.08

Lilies Galore
Take care with fragile bulbs
By Rachel Foster

Afternoons may still be warm and pleasant, but lately there’s an undeniable chill in the morning air. It’s time to think about bulbs again, the kind you plant in fall: daffodils, tulips and ornamental onions, for example, as well as crocus and other small spring flowering bulbs. And lilies. True lilies, that is, in the genus Lilium, the aristocrats and glamour girls of the perennial garden.  

On a recent Saturday morning at Eugene’s Lane County Farmers Market, Lou Westphal wondered why I didn’t write about lilies in summer, when you could go by the Buggy Crazy stall, look over the amazing flowers he brings to the market and pick out your favorite varieties. Well, I just didn’t. Luckily, you can check out pictures at before visiting the market to buy his freshly dug lily bulbs.  

With lilies, the fresher the better. Unlike tulips or daffodils, lily bulbs are never truly dormant and have no tough protective coat. The scaly, somewhat fragile bulbs can dry out easily, so it is best to plant them as soon as you can get them, in early to mid-fall. If you cannot plant them right away, pack them in very slightly moist sawdust in a perforated bag or box in a cool, dark place and plant them as soon as you can.

True lilies grow in temperate places all over the world. Several are native to the Pacific Northwest. While these and many other species are beautiful and rewarding, the easiest, most adaptable lilies for gardens are among the numerous man-made hybrids. The bulk of these fall into three groups: Asiatic, Oriental and Trumpet lilies. 

Originally bred for the cut-flower trade in the mid-1900s, most Asiatics were scentless and had up-facing flowers on stems up to four feet. Subsequent breeding efforts have resulted in flowers that face out as well as up, and flowers in the reflexed, ‘Turk’s cap’ style which is common among naturally occurring lilies. Asiatics are available in an almost unlimited color range (there are no blue lilies), and they are tough, easy and relatively inexpensive, a good choice for novice lily growers. 

Oriental hybrids and Trumpet lilies are generally large-flowered, four to six feet tall and later blooming than Asiatics, which follow hard on the heels of late tulips. Orientals have exotic-looking, broadly open flowers in white, pink or rose that are often scented. The very popular ‘Stargazer,’ though only about three feet tall, is otherwise typical of Oriental hybrids. Sumptuous Trumpet lilies and Orienpets (Trumpet-Oriental hybrids) provide a range of flower forms with subtle coloring and some heady fragrances.

The bulk of the lilies you’ll find at Buggy Crazy are bred by Westphal and his partner Lisa Hunt at their place in Lebanon. They select for “big, stout stems and a high bud count.” Do they really stand up without staking, even the six footers? “Yep,” as long as they have adequate light. Westphal and Hunt also breed to extend blooming times. They have achieved some later Asiatics and earlier Orientals but not, as yet, lilies that bloom later into fall: Their last Orientals bloom about the same time as the latest species, Lilium speciosum var. rubrum. 

Lilies require at least half a day of sun or strong indirect light. Trumpet and Asiatic lilies will grow in full sun, but the petals of Orientals are susceptible to sunburn and benefit from afternoon shade. Lilies should be planted in well-drained soil. With the exception of a few species, they need consistent moisture throughout the growing season, but wet, heavy soils can cause root rot. Many lilies send out roots from the stem, so plant the bulbs with at least three or four inches of soil above the bulb. Feed with a balanced fertilizer mix as you would perennials, but don’t let any fertilizer (or manure, unless very well rotted) come in contact with the bulbs. A leafy mulch is great. 

I lived for many years where the soil was unsuitable for growing lilies, so I felt  intimidated by them. But they have proved easy enough to grow in my Eugene garden ­ until voles devour the bulbs or I let the stems get shaded out by big perennials and shrubs!  If this may happen in your garden, I suggest you grow lilies in large containers, where they will multiply contentedly and perform brilliantly for years. In the garden, interplant lilies with low growing, clumping plants that leave plenty of air and light around the leafy lily stems.

Asiatic hybrid bulbs will be available from Buggy Crazy in September, Orientals and Trumpets in October. A small selection of lilies native to the West Coast, including our local Lilium columbianum, should appear towards the end of September. If you can’t catch Buggy Crazy at the Saturday Farmer’s Market in Eugene, find him at the Mushroom Festival at Mt. Pisgah, Sunday, Oct. 26. You can also buy bulbs on the website above, and they will be shipped to you. Another great Pacific Northwest source of unique lilies is The Lily Garden in Vancouver, Wash. (

Rachel Foster of Eugene is a garden consultant and author of All About Gardens, a selection of past Eugene Weekly columns. She can be reached at