The scent of white lilies is the essence of Christ­mas here in Aotearoa, syn­ony­mous with our mid­sum­mer fes­tive sea­son.

NZ Gardener - - CONTENTS -

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.

‘Conca d’Or’.

‘Lion Heart’.

Ori­en­tal lilies.

‘Soft Mu­sic’.

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