Growing California Native Lilies

The author discussed fritillaries in our issue of April 1976. He was then employed at the University of California Botanic Garden and had for many years traveled the state collecting seeds for the garden. He is consulted internationally on California native plants.

California is blessed with many lilies. There is hardly a place in California where a lily cannot be found, but while all belong to the Lily Family — corn lily, desert lily, adobe lily, fawn lily and mariposa lily — most are not true lilies. Of the nearly one hundred true lilies of the world, those in the genus Lilium, about twenty species and varieties are found in California.

And what is a true lily? It is a perennial with a scaly bulb and a simple unbranched tall leafy stem with the flowers near the top. All lilies have showy flowers; five species in California are also fragrant.

I have tried to grow every species and variation of our native lilies I could find and I have noted some interesting things about them, particularly how well they grow or, more often, don’t grow in gardens. I have noticed that the higher the elevation at which a lily is found the more difficult it is to grow near sea level. I believe the most critical thing for the gardener to keep in mind is the covering of snow these lilies from high elevations have for several months of the year. This forces them to stay dormant during this period.

Lilium parvum, alpine lily, is found at the highest elevations of all. It is most common at 6,000 to 8,000 feet and is found growing along streams, around springs, and in bog areas. It is nearly impossible to grow at low elevations, rarely ever living long enough to flower. Seeds germinate and grow well the first year, but few seedlings survive the first winter. On the west side of the Sierra Nevada two variants of this small-flowered orangey-red lily can be found. One is called L. parvum var. luteum and the other is a pink variant which has not been named. These two forms are found at about 4,000 feet, where snow rarely stays for more than a few days. They have grown well for me given a normal lily mix of a humus-rich, well-drained soil in raised beds.

Another lily of the Sierra from about the same elevation is Lilium kelleyanum, Kelley’s lily. Rare, little known and fragrant, this is, to me, one of our most unusual and variable lilies. Kelley’s lily is found in and around Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. The flowers are of the Turk’s cap kind, golden yellow and beautifully scented. For a Sierran lily it is quite easy to grow and even did well for me in pots until the big drought of 1977.

Lilium pardalinum. Drawings by Nancy Baron.

Lilium pardalinum. Drawings by Nancy Baron.

Through much of the Sierra Nevada at mid-elevations can be found a turk’s cap lily generally red, but so variable that no two are alike. I think all the odd and unusual lilies which appear to be Lilium kelleyanum could be placed with these L. pardalinum-like lilies. Of those I have tried, all but one have been difficult to grow. One area on the Feather River has a form which is two to three times larger than most of them and seems less difficult to grow. This is getting into the Lilium pardalinum complex which includes all the wet growing Turk’s cap lilies that are difficult to grow, and I must leave them for those that do better in cultivation.

Many years ago a lily was introduced as L. pardalinum var. gigantea. Whether it is a hybrid or a wild lily from the Van Duzen River has been debated for many years. Whatever, it is so easy to grow that it can become almost invasive! It grows to about five or six feet high with as many as fifteen bright red flowers on each stem. If the plant likes the location a single bulb can become a large clump of forty or fifty in less than five years. Those wishing to grow only one California lily should choose this; it is available and easy to grow. Forms of L. pardalinum from Santa Cruz and Mendocino Counties have been nearly as easy to grow.

Lilium pitkinense looks much like L. pardalinum but has the distinctive characteristic of flowers in whorls. It is not difficult to grow and endears itself to gardeners because about ten percent of those raised will flower from seed in eighteen months; most take four years. I have cross-pollinated two plants with dark red flowers to try to get all red flowers, but a good number were orange in just about the same ratio as those from open pollination.

Lilium wigginsii from the western part of the Siskiyou Mountains is a lovely golden yellow lily which seems to persist quite well in cultivation. Its only variation is in the amount of brown speckling on the flowers. My cultivated plants are shorter than those in the wild. In the very western part of the Siskiyous is found L. vollmeri. To me it resembles L. pardalinum but with many unusually narrow leaves scattered up and down the stem. I remember them growing up through a patch of darlingtonias in one place, but the best and tallest plants I have seen were growing in the middle of a rushing stream which agitated the plants so greatly I wondered if any insect could pollinate the flowers. L. vollmeri has not done well for me in cultivation.

Of the other wet growing Turk’s cap lilies I have grown, Lilium occidentale, which has a red flower with a green center, has been most difficult. In fact, if I could get a plant strong enough to bloom I was pleased. In the Mount Shasta area there is a swarm of Turk’s cap lilies that Munz considers to be L. kelleyanum. Alice Eastwood recognized them as L. shastense and I agree with her. These are the most mixed up lilies of all. In any patch of them one can find red and yellow flowers, anthers short and long (anther length is a useful character for separating some lilies), and some plants grow only eighteen inches high with one flower, while others grow to eight or nine feet with up to sixty-eight flowers. All of these have been difficult to grow from bulbs, and seeds germinate poorly.

There is one more wet-growing lily in California and this is a trumpet type: Lilium parryi, the lemon lily, from southern California. This fragrant, clear yellow lily grows to about four feet high with several flowers to each stem. I have had only a few seeds, given me many years ago, and I grew them to flowering size, but lost them after the second blooming. I grew them in five gallon containers and did not repot, so the drain holes became plugged. I know now that I killed them by not having enough drainage. I now repot every year or two, as I find clay particles in the soil sift down and accumulate at the bottom of the pot. With the excess wet the roots rot.

Now, to consider some lilies usually classed as dry growers. But where does “wet” end and “dry” begin?

Lilium maritimum

Lilium maritimum

In northwestern California there are four lilies usually thought of as dry growers, but all grow in high rainfall areas with heavy summer dews and fogs. Lilium bolanderi grows in the chaparral of Del Norte County with ninety inches of rain a year. Azaleas flourish on the same slopes — higher than the lily. I would say that isn’t very dry. I have never grown it from seed and have tried only a few bulbs, which bloomed only three or four times with flowers less than half the normal size. This silver-leaved plant with dark red funnel shaped flowers would be a most welcome addition to gardens if only we could make it happy. Another of the four is L. columbianum, a golden Turk’s cap common in open areas in the redwoods of northern Humboldt County and north to Canada. This widespread lily should be very adaptable and yet I have found it to be difficult. I have not tried growing it from seed, and have planted only a few bulbs. Probably I did not keep them dry enough or maybe our dry hot summers were too much for them.

Lilium kelloggii is found in Humboldt and Del Norte Counties. It is considered a dry-growing lily and yet I killed it by keeping it too dry. This fragrant pink lily would be a great plant if we can work out the right amount of water to give it. The fourth lily in this group is L. maritimum, growing along the coast of northern Sonoma and parts of Mendocino counties. I have seen the coast lily growing in wet areas as well as in chaparral and in open woodlands. I found that it did best with some water, enough to keep the soil moist. The coast lily has red funnel-shaped flowers and the plants can be anywhere from four inches to four feet tall. On exposed headlands they are short, with one flower; the chaparral and woodland plants are tall with up to ten flowers.

The last three California lilies are dry growers; but again how dry is dry? Lilium humboldtii is really dry growing although I found it best when I gave plants water every two weeks up to flowering time. Large amounts of organic matter were worked deep into the bed before planting and a thick mulch of leaves was added every fall. They seemed to thrive on this treatment and grew well, producing stems up to nine feet tall with up to seventy flowers per stem. Humboldt lilies are widely spread. I have seen them along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, in Santa Barbara County, Santa Cruz Island, and San Diego County. The flowers are orange, spotted maroon and of the Turk’s cap type. The southern California forms are more reddish in color sometimes with red or yellow around the dark spots.

Lilium washingtonianum

Lilium washingtonianum

Lilium washingtonianum is white, sometimes fading to pink, and very fragrant — so fragrant that many times one can smell them before seeing them. Washington or Shasta lily grows always in very sharply drained soils, mostly in chaparral. I never had very great success with it; I think I kept the plants too dry. Most are found where they have some summer rain. For the fragrant pink redwood lily, L. rubescens, l made a raised bed, adding a mass of leaf mold and grit worked deep into the soil. Again, some plants died out in a short time and l think it was lack of water up to blooming time. If I ever try to grow these last two lilies again, I shall plant them where I can give them water until blooming and then one good soaking once a month until the rains start in the fall.

I have several thoughts about our native lilies for those who wish to grow them. First: all are highly susceptible to botrytis. There are several fungi to watch for, some attacking new growth, others mature growth, and some attack the bulbs. If grown in containers, they must be repotted every year or two, as the soil mix breaks down and will become waterlogged, which is sure death to bulbs. It is best to grow them all in raised beds in loose, well drained, soils. There is no information on how dry to keep dry-growing species. I believe these should be given some water up to blooming and then about once a month for L. humboldtii and L. washingtonianum and twice a month for the other dry growers. It is best to leave high-elevation species up in the snow country.

It is best to plant seeds in boxes eight to ten inches deep in humus-rich soil with grit or sand added. Cover the seeds about one-half inch deep and keep moist and cool. If you see few young leaves the first spring don’t be alarmed; quite often lilies do not produce leaves the first year but do make a little bulb. I like to plant in boxes so that I can spread the seeds very thinly and not have to disturb them for two or three years. If the seedlings grow strongly, as with L. pitkinense, I reset them the second year to give space for blooming the next year.

My last tip for those becoming interested in our native lilies is, if you don’t want to wait four years for them from seed to flowering, and you don’t want to bother with difficult growers, buy a bulb of the so-called Lilium pardalinum var. gigantea. You can’t go wrong with it!

Because lilies are becoming so rare in the wild, please don’t dig or pick any. It is best to go back in mid-September and take a little seed if you wish to try growing them. Better still, enquire of some of the specialists advertising in this magazine. Several of them deal in nursery grown native plants.