Lilium majoense

By: Rizaniño Reyes

Rizaniño “Riz” Reyes is a plantsman and horticulturist in the Pacific Northwest. He owns and operates RHR Horticulture and Landwave…

More From This Author
Lilium majoense Photo: Riz Reyes

Lilium majoense Photographs by Riz Reyes

For many, Lilium ‘Stargazer’ and ‘Casablanca’ satisfy the need for a garden lily or a long-lasting cut flower. For us lily enthusiasts, the thousands of hybrids in cultivation continually dazzle us with their color contrasts, sultry scents, and vigor. It can be confusing to keep up with all the modern laboratory techniques for propagation and the curious marketing claims of “lily tree” and “Orienpet.” If we take a journey past the florist shops and bulb catalogs, and return to the forests of China where so many lilies originated and where botanists quarreled over their identity, we might discover that modern day introductions are just as complex and, perhaps, a little more intriguing.

Several years ago, a stunning photograph of an exquisite white lily, heavily speckled in near black, captured the attention of nurserymen and avid plant collectors worldwide. Many willingly paid six dollars for a bulb of “L-11: Lilium sp. (2) (fragrant),” in a transaction later dubbed equivalent to purchasing an endangered species on the black market.

After a long initial journey, from as high as 3,100 meters in the mountain forests of northwestern Yunnan Province to a warehouse in Beijing, purple brown rootless bulbs arrived, packed in paper sleeves, but either half desiccated or partially rotted. If a viable bulb survived the journey, it produced a stem and eventually a flower; a botanical key helped put a name to this most ethereal lily. It seemed closely allied and similar in appearance to the popular but often temperamental and stoloniferous Lilium nepalense. Nurserymen accepted that name and charged a hefty sum for this “unusual variant” of an uncommon species.

Lily enthusiasts later determined that, because this lily did not form stolons prior to emerging from the ground, the coloration and spotting in the center was distinct, and it had never been reported from the vast hills of Nepal, it must be a completely different species. But, which one?

Lilium majoense

Lilium majoense

A Taxonomic Debate

It was a classic case of “lumpers versus splitters” among taxonomists. In the late 1800s, when many Asian lilies were described and assigned their botanical identities, there was much confusion and debate about the “Nepalense group.” Early botanical keys suggested several distinct species from among that group, including Lilium primulinum Baker, L. ochraceum Franchet, and L. nepalense D Don. According to EH Wilson’s 1925 monograph, The Lilies of Eastern Asia, botanist Hector Léveillé (1863-1918) was overwhelmed by the exceedingly variable groups and irresponsibly changed his mind on the names he had proposed for individual species. One name that arose from the L. ochraceum group was L. majoense H Lév (1892), the description for which seemed to match most closely our new species.

Today, the Flora of China does not even recognize Lilium ochraceum as an individual species, although L. primulinum and L. nepalense are still accepted in the key. These two species are distinguishable by the number of veins in each leaf: three for L. primulinum and five for L. nepalense. Our assumed L. majoense possesses three veins per leaf. The current key further revealed three variants of L. primulinum, two of which occur in China. Of those two, one brings “ochraceum” back into the nomenclature as L. primulinum var. ochraceum, which has four synonyms: L. ochraceum Franchet, J Bot. (Morot); L. majoense H Lév; L. nepalense D Don var. ochraceum (Franchet); L. tenii H Lév.

To the nurseryman, this represents a recurring problem, as the several forms are all similar; to the critical plantsman’s eye, however, distinct differences do exist. Though the story of Lilium majoense has floated around several online forums and websites, there has yet to be a published paper that absolutely distinguishes it as its own species. Perhaps the name will forever be noted as a synonym for another species. Whatever the case, it is truly a spectacular lily worth seeking out.

Lilium majoense

Lilium majoense

Preservation Through Cultivation

First attempts at growing this lily meant trying to replicate its natural environment. I had assumed that all lilies arose from forested situations, so I was surprised to find that most of these Asian species were found on grassy slopes and open meadows. Having neither habitat in my garden, I resorted to planting the bulbs in well-amended soil several feet away from established Western red cedars (Thuja plicata) in my woodland shade garden. Thanks to careful irrigation and protection from sneaky slugs, a stem appeared, sought the light, and rewarded me with a wiry stem carrying deep green, glabrous leaves totally free of disease or virus. The weak stem required support due to the weight of two dangling bells that opened a pale green fading to rich cream, with a spectacular display of deep purple speckles grading to a solid center.

Each blossom lasts for only a few days, depending on the intensity of the summer heat. The greatest joy is witnessing the flower just as the sun sets, to see the illumination of a backlit flower and experience the intense floral aroma noticeable only as darkness settles in.

The entire plant can reach five to six feet in height once established and is capable of producing six to seven flowers, or perhaps more in ideal conditions; flowering begins in late June in the Pacific Northwest. Its performance in the garden suggests that it requires partial shade and soils that are well drained and allowed to moderately dry out between waterings. It has proven to be quite hardy, but protection from excessive moisture is vital.

Increased propagation of this species should make it more readily available to gardeners, without the risk of further imports of possibly wild-collected bulbs. Clones from early shipments have flowered, providing ample pollen for several flowers to set seed. Luckily, this species appears fertile, and a large batch of seed has been collected and sown, which should yield flowering bulbs in just a few years time.

In a horticultural industry focused on improving flower size, stem strength and length, and vase-life, species like Lilium majoense will never be seen in a florist rack, for its flimsy stems and down-facing flowers make them undesirable by retail commercial florists. However, the species has the potential to be a graceful and garden-worthy addition for a keen collector of lilies. It also can be introduced in breeding programs to infuse hybrids with the exquisite spotted patterning and enchanting fragrance, along with shade tolerance and resistance to foliar diseases. There’s also the possibility of developing an exceptional strain of the pure species to improve upon the quality of the bloom, strength of the stem, and overall adaptability in the garden.