Trying to sort out the various kinds of hybrid lilies is a good way to bring on a headache. Which to choose? Asiatics? Trumpets? Orientals? Orienpets? Come to think of it, why are there two separate categories called Asiatic and Oriental? (I’d like to have a word with the genius who thought up that distinction.)
Let me suggest that we sidestep this nomenclatural morass and head directly for the door marked “species,” for it is here, despite the vast number of hybrids, that some of the most seductive lilies are still to be found. The one I have in mind for the sultry weeks of late summer is the Chinese species Lilium henryi, named for the Irish plant explorer Augustine Henry, who in 1888 found it growing in the limestone gorges near Yichang in Hubei province.
There are many things to like about this lily. It is tall and graceful, usually growing from four to six feet on strong, arching, purple-brown stems. It is tough and undemanding, needing only sun (with, ideally, a bit of afternoon shade) and a humusy, well-drained soil on the alkaline side of neutral (remember those limestone gorges?). It blooms late in the season, and consorts well with the ornamental grasses and big, burly composites that dominate the border this time of year. And as for the flowers, they are a perfect blend of delicacy and boldness: borne on thin pedicels, they are pendulous, with strongly recurved tepals, a sprinkling of dark spots, and strange, fleshy, raised papillae that bring to mind the sea-creatures you find in tide pools. Their overall color is a soft orange that looks good with just about everything—even strong pinks, if you’re not too squeamish.
The purple-tinged, fist-size bulbs can be planted in either fall or spring. There should be about eight inches of soil above the bulb, and if your soil is acidic, work a couple of handfuls of ground limestone into the surrounding soil. If your soil is naturally rich and you add lots of compost every year, you probably won’t need to do any extra fertilizing. Because the stalks tend to arch, you might be tempted to stake them so they’ll be bolt upright, but I think the plants look better when allowed to grow unfettered but supported by nearby shrubs (purple smokebush is dandy) or other tall perennials.
Although L. henryi is free from most pests and diseases, if you live in the Northeast you will probably have to contend with the scarlet lily beetle, and a more disgusting and ravenous insect would be hard to find. When I lived in Boston, I used to go on lily beetle patrol every morning before breakfast, squishing the clusters of orange eggs and squirting the adults and excrement-covered larvae with insecticidal soap. Blood sport is not something you usually associate with gardening, but life takes many strange turns.
A version of this article first appeared in Horticulture magazine, vol. 99, no. 45 (July/August 2002).