Lilies of Quarryhill

Lilium leucanthum

Lilium davidii

Lilium japonicum

Lilium regale

Lilium duchartrei

Lilium auratum

Lilium lophophorum

Lilium henryi

Lilium leichtlinii

Lilium speciosum

Lilium formosanum

By William A. McNamara 

"In late June and July it is possible to walk for days through a veritable wild garden dominated by these beautiful flowers." E. H. Wilson, China Mother of Gardens

I often refer to Quarryhill as my little piece of Eden. The many lilies that thrive here reaffirm this to me every spring, summer, and fall. They grace our garden with their elegance at a time when our many shrubs and trees have finished their spring flowering. Their stems rise up through our perennials and low shrubs as if to greet you at the edge of our pathways throughout the garden. The pleasing colors, shapes, and fragrance of their flowers cool the senses during the intense heat of our summers. As the leaves wither on their stout stems in the fall they remind one of the fleeting nature of life. But as the pods open and the seeds scatter in the wind one is also reminded of the bounty and renewal that the next spring will bring. All of our lilies are from China and Japan, and with two exceptions, they are all of wild origin. Only seed and bulbils were collected due to our firm policy of not disturbing the natural habitat by digging and removing plants. Of the more than 90 species of lilies in the world, about half occur in China and Japan. Almost a third of the world total occur in the three provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Xizang (Tibet) in China. This region is considered to be the major world center of distribution of the genus Lilium. We have been fortunate to explore this part of China on numerous occasions. Seeing lilies in their natural habitat has been instrumental in our success at cultivating them. Almost always, we found the lilies growing in full sun on rocky fast draining steep mountainsides. Moreover, they always occurred in areas of relatively high summer rainfall followed by a dry winter.

The lilies at Quarryhill begin blooming in May with the magnificent white trumpets of Lilium leucanthum Baker. leucanthum means "white flowered." The robust stems grow four to seven feet tall with six to ten sweetly scented large flowers. We found this lily in September of 1988 in northern Sichuan south of the town of Pingwu. It was growing on a south-facing mountainside at an elevation of 2340 feet. The stems were about four feet tall and were found among dense regenerating shrubs.

The deep orange Lilium davidii Elwes are the next to display their elegance. They start blooming in June on stems three to four feet high with five to twenty-three flowers. Their recurved tepals are covered with tiny black dots. This lily is named after the French missionary Pere Armand David. As with much of the flora of western China, he was the first westerner to come across this floral gem. We found this lily growing at the Maowen Research Station in northern Sichuan at an elevation of 6080 feet in October of 1995. The plants there had been collected in Gansu Province and were growing in full sun to about four feet tall.

As the Lilium davidii fade the choice pink trumpets of Lilium japonicum Thunberg ex Houttuyn rise up. These start blooming in late June with nodding delicate trumpets on stems about three feet high with one or two flowers. japonicum refers to its native home Japan. There it grows on mountain slopes up to 3400 feet elevation in southern Honshu. K. Ogaki gave seed of this lily to us in October of 1989 in Osaka, Japan. He collected them at an elevation of 500 feet at Osaka-sayama, Osaka, in southern Honshu, Japan. Sadly, of all our lilies, only this one lacks vigor and is not regenerating by offsets or bulblets.

Next a flurry of lilies arrive at the end of June beginning with the highly fragrant trumpets of Lilium regale Wilson. These bloom on stems to about three feet with one to six white flowers with a yellow throat. This lily has a very limited natural range along the Min River in northern Sichuan and was first introduced in 1903 by E. H. Wilson, the famous English plant hunter. regale means "royal", and Wilson considered this plant to be one of his most important introductions. Dashing from an avalanche during an expedition in 1910 to recollect this lily on the steep mountainsides along the Min River, his leg was broken in two places. His previous collection from 1903 had rotted in the hold of a ship in route to America. Unfortunately his leg did not set right, leaving him with one leg slightly shorter than the other. For the rest of his life, he suffered from what he called his "lily limp." We found this lily in October of 1995 near the town of Tao Guang above the Min River in northern Sichuan. It was growing in full sun on a southeast facing rocky outcrop with Desmodium, Buddleja, Ceratostigma, and Bauhinia at 3750 feet elevation.

The fragrant Lilium brownii F. E. Brown ex Miellez, starts flowering in late June also. Large rosy purple trumpets white inside bloom on sturdy stems three to five feet high. Ours have from one to ten flowers each. This lily is named after a F. E. Brown, an English nurseryman. It first arrived in England in 1835 and Brown was the first to flower this spectacular lily. This lily has been cultivated for centuries in China for its edible bulbs as well as for medicine. We made several collections of this lily in September and October of 1996 in eastern Sichuan and western Hubei. All were in sun in very exposed sites, often on a cliff face, at between 1470 to 3200 feet elevation.

The dainty turk's-cap Lilium duchartrei Franchet likewise begins to open in late June. These precious lilies bloom on arching stems two to four feet high with two to six pendent white flowers with red spots. Pere Armand David also introduced this lily from China in 1869. It is named after Pierre Etienne Duchartre, a French professor of botany. We found this lily north of Songpan at 8000 feet elevation in northern Sichuan in September of 1988. It was growing in an open valley of dense shrubs with scattered pines near the Beishui River.

Lilium sargentiae Wilson is our next lily to flower. These bloom on stems three to four feet tall crowded with bulbils in the axils. Each has one to seven large white highly perfumed six-inch trumpets with yellow throats. Named after the wife of Charles Sprague Sargent, the first director of the Arnold Arboretum, this lily was introduced by E. H. Wilson in 1903 from Sichuan, China. We collected this lily twice in 1991. The first time was in September just east of the Erlang Shan at 2750 feet elevation in western Sichuan from a plant six feet high. It was growing on a vertical south facing granite cliff. The seed was not ripe, but there were several bulbils along the stem. The second time was in October in western Sichuan on an east-facing mountainside above the town of Luding across the Luding Bridge. They were about three feet tall growing among dense regenerating shrubs at 4400 feet elevation.

July is ushered in with the huge audacious Lilium auratum Lindley. These giant ten inch flowers bloom on stems three to five feet high. Their outfacing pure white blossoms have a central golden-yellow band and are dotted with ruby spots. The species name of this popular Japanese lily means "ornamented with gold." Several varieties have long been cultivated and it is widely used in hybridization. We found this splendid lily in October of 1987 in Aokigahara, Honshu, Japan. It was growing in a steep valley in an open mixed deciduous forest at 3000 feet elevation.

In a pleasing contrast with the massive flowers of Lilium auratum, the delicate light yellow blossoms of Lilium lophophorum Franchet reach up above the surrounding foliage. On stems one to two feet high are two small lantern shaped nodding flowers. The meaning of lophophorum is "wearing a crest." It was given to this lily due to the fringes along the nectaries. This lily occurs at very high elevations in Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu and Xizang (Tibet), occasionally as high as 15000 feet. We found it in October of 1988 at 13000 feet on Zheduo Pass in western Sichuan. It was a foot high on a bare open east facing alpine meadow with Gentiana, Pedicularis and Potentilla.

August brings the curious orange Lilium henryi Baker with their dense whisker-like papillae and a dark stripe at the base of the tepal. These pendent turk's-cap lilies have as many as fifteen blossoms on three to four foot stems. henryi refers to Augustine Henry, an Irish plant explorer, who first introduced this lily from China. Like Lilium auratum, Lilium henryi has been used extensively in hybridization. We collected ours in September of 1996 in southeastern Sichuan near the town of Ma wu. It was growing to three feet high in an open east-facing hillside with regenerating trees and shrubs at 2200 feet elevation.

Next the garden bursts into a sea of the orange tiger lily Lilium leichtlinii Hooker f. var. maximowiczii (Regel) Baker. Their stems rise up over six feet topped with a large raceme with up to 30 black spotted turk's-cap flowers. This lily is named after the German botanist Max Leichtlin and the Russian botanist Carl Maximowicz. It is native to the mountains of Japan, Korea, northeastern China, and far-eastern Russia. We collected ours on an exposed mountainside covered with shrubs and low growing sasa near Nose-mura, Honshu, Japan at 4000 feet elevation.

In mid-August as you tire of this plethora of orange, the stunning huge pink flowers of Lilium speciosum Thunberg start opening. Their stems are four to seven feet high with as many as twenty-five fragrant blossoms. The strongly reflexed tepals are bright pink with carmine spots. This lily is found in southern Japan and southeastern China and was first introduce from Japan in 1830. It is aptly named as speciosum means "splendid, brilliant." We collected ours in October of 1989 on Yokogura San, Shikoku, Japan at an elevation of 2300 feet. It was in full sun on the edge of a woodland.

And finally, the wonderful towering stems, some over eight feet tall, of Lilium formosanum Wallace arrive at the end of summer. These six-inch gorgeous white trumpets with up to seven on a stem are a crowning finale to a summer of lilies. Like an encore performance, some of them keep blooming into December. Its name refers to Formosa, now called Taiwan, where it is native. We collected ours from naturalized plants near Nagoya in Honshu, Japan in 1987.

Lilies have been cultivated for thousands of years and remain a religious symbol in many parts of the world. They have been grown for food and used in medicine. Mostly though, they are sought after for their beauty. Hikers delight in their mountain splendor and gardeners in their extraordinary charm. Due to their vigor and propensity to multiply, we have successfully spread many of our lilies throughout the garden. When strolling through the garden during the summer months one can't help but admire the grandeur of these remarkable plants. I like to think of ours at Quarryhill as a tiny remnant of that magical place called Eden .

Photography by Liam McNamara
BRIGGS, R.W. (1993). 'Chinese' Wilson: A life of Ernest H. Wilson 1876-1930. HMSO, London, England.
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WILSON, E.H. (1929). The Lilies of Eastern Asia. Dulau & Company, Ltd., London, England