Gardening with California’s Monocots: Lilies

This is the second excerpt, adapted with permission from Wild Lilies, Irises, and Grasses: Gardening With California’s Monocots, edited by Nora Harlow and Kristin Jakob and published in 2004 by University of California Press and the California Native Plants Society.

Throughout history, gardens worldwide have been adorned with lilies. The elegant spires topped with waxy, sometimes fragrant flowers have appeared in perennial borders and as stately subjects of woodland and streamside gardens. Unfortunately, most of the twenty or so species native to California are difficult to grow, and a few have proved impossible in cultivation. Several, however, can be grown in gardens if their cultural requirements are met.

California lilies are architecturally striking plants. The single stem, two to six feet tall or more with tiers of whorled leaves, is topped by showy, often ascending flowers in colors ranging from white to pink, yellow, orange, or red. Habitats in the wild also are varied, from coastal marshes, streams, and damp woods to interior chaparral, dry woods, and mountain meadows. Each species is quite specialized in habitat and cultural requirements, and most are of limited distribution in the wild. They tend to fall generally into two broad cultural groups—wet growers and dry growers—but there is considerable variation within the groups, and in some cases the two groups seem to overlap.

California lilies add an enchanting, almost animate presence scattered throughout an open grove of trees or thrusting their colorful, waxy-petaled flowers out of masses of chaparral shrubs. In their most classic garden uses, drifts of lilies combine well with rhododendrons, ferns, aquilegias, inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), and hound’s tongue (Cynoglossom spp.), making an unforgettable display in the cool, dappled shade of a woodland garden.

More than half of the state’s native lilies are considered rare, threatened, endangered, or sufficiently uncommon to be of concern. Those most easily cultivated are available from several sources in the specialty nursery trade or from botanic garden and plant society sales.

Lilies grow from scaly rhizomes, which can be purchased from specialty bulb suppliers. Plants also can be grown from seed. Seeds should be started in raised beds or pots. Excellent drainage is of utmost importance in growing most native lilies and this is best achieved with combinations of sand, gravel, and some organic matter as the growing medium; with the possible exception of some forms of Lilium pardalinum, no clay, silt, or loam should be used in soil mixes.

Watering schedules are difficult to specify. In the wild, dry growers are found away from apparent water sources and, aside from fog in some regions, seem to receive no summer water. However, when this regime is duplicated in the garden, losses usually occur. Wet growers inhabit areas that are perennially damp, with moisture fluctuating during the year, usually peaking in spring and ebbing in fall. If consistent watering is practiced in the garden, plants usually rot in summer. Occasional but infrequent watering in summer may provide success with both wet and dry growers.

If correct soil and watering conditions can be provided, plants usually can be brought to flower from seed in one-and-a-half to five years, depending on the species.


Leopard lily (Lilium pardalinum). Drawing by Kristin Jakob

Leopard lily (Lilium pardalinum). Drawing by Kristin Jakob

Lilium pardalinum
leopard lily

Leopard lily is well suited to garden cultivation. An elegant plant to six feet tall, it bears several to a dozen or more large, pendulous, yellow orange flowers with reddish brown to maroon spots and conspicuous anthers atop a sturdy stem. Native to streambanks and wet places in many parts of California, especially coniferous and mixed evergreen forests, it is easy to grow if given moisture and part shade. Near the coast, it may flower best with water in full sun.

Pitkin Marsh lily (Lilium pardalinum ssp. pitkinense) is native to freshwater marshes and wet meadows in Sonoma County. Three to six feet tall with yellow green leaves, it bears large, showy flowers, red at the outer edge and yellow at the center with deep maroon spots. Rare and endangered in California and elsewhere, it is is reliably available from nursery-propagated stock.

Wiggins’s lily (Lilium pardalinum ssp. wigginsii) is found along streams and in bogs in the Klamath Ranges, the western Siskiyou Mountains, and southwestern Oregon. It bears clear, golden yellow orange flowers and persists well in gardens if given a cool location with excellent drainage and damp but not too wet conditions after flowering. Wiggins’s lily is on the California Native Plant Society’s “watch” list. Sometimes listed as L. wigginsii, it is occasionally available from specialty suppliers.