The scent of white lilies is the essence of Christmas here in Aotearoa, synonymous with our midsummer festive season.
No flower is as festive as Christmas lilies, says Kerry Carman.
You don’t even have to grow them as every supermarket, corner store, garage and florist is bursting at the seams with their fragrant bounty.
But exactly what is the true Christmas lily? To most these days, it is the goldenthroated, purple-backed glistening white trumpet Lilium regale.
But many of us have fond memories of the superbly radiant Madonna lily ( Lilium
candidum), hailing from the Holy Land and linked for centuries with art and religion. This was the Christmas lily that entranced my young nose in my grandmother’s 1940s Christchurch garden.
Sadly, the strain fell prey to a persistent virus, Botrytis, which put an end to distribution and commercial production. It may still be found in some lucky gardens or long-forgotten and undisturbed cottage plots. Neglect and the right climate seem to be the key.
If you can locate some bulbs of this quintessential Christmas lily, give them as sunny and well-drained a position as you can.
They need to be shallowly planted with the nose just sticking out of the soil, contrary to most lily lore. They also need lime, also unlike other lilies. The soil mix should be gravelly and dry. Despite their need for a poor home they are rich feeders so need regular applications of fertiliser.
They are said to thrive in Central Otago and other areas that experience long, very hot, dry summers and autumns.
I will always – because of its beauty, time of flowering and childhood associations – regard the Madonna lily as the true Christmas lily. The flowers are medium-sized, open, bowl-shaped blooms atop slender stems clasped by curiously shaped little leaflets. The overlapping petals are dazzling in their whiteness and texture, appearing as if carved from thick white wax or ivory. The scent surpasses that of all other lilies and most fragrant flowers, lacking the overpowering, cloying sweetness that characterises so many lilies. The aroma is ethereal but delicious and once smelled, never forgotten. It is a truly exquisite thing. There are two other forms of the Madonna lily, Lilium candidum var. salonikae and a hybrid ‘White Knight’, which are reputedly easier to grow but are not as beautiful or as distinctively scented.
Nowadays, it is the slender-leaved regal lily ( Lilium regale) which holds our allegiance, and it never disappoints.
Various other white hybrids with broad green leaves such as radiant ‘Snow Queen’ and ‘Dutch Glory’ also offer seasonal joy.
The regal lily is the easiest lily to grow: a handful of seed tossed on the garden or strewn between the vege rows will pop up in spring still wearing their seed coats like little hats clinging to the tops of their stalks. They may be planted out in the following year and will flower generously for you in their third year from sowing.
Other lilies also make their debut in December, mainly hybrids known as Asiatics (mostly scentless) and the very fragrant Orientals.
The species Lilium auratum known as the golden-rayed lily of Japan is also dear to my heart. My most reliable cultivar in this group is superbly scented, golden ‘Conca d’Or’. I grow mine in containers, placed in the sunny entrance courtyard when in bloom and moved to shadier quarters after that. My clay-based soil is good for fertility but not for plants – such as lilies – that insist on perfect drainage.
Two other December favourites among the new hybrids are ‘Lion Heart’, which wears a startling gold and black livery, and a delicate pale pink double called ‘Soft Music’.
But beautiful as the coloured lilies are, it is the white, scented Christmas lilies that best epitomise the spirit of the season, along with our crimson-garlanded pohutukawa.¯ Whatever the weather at Christmas, they delight. On even the gloomiest day in a downpour of rain, they glow like lanterns. And if rain bends and breaks the heads of many summer flowers, the lilies shine out, their heads unbowed, the fanfare of their shining golden-throated trumpets exuding fragrance and raindrops in equal measure.
Giant regal lily.