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If you got an Easter lily for the holiday, don't discard it when it finishes blooming — plant it! Here are some interesting facts about lilies and a guide to planting them from an article by David Trinklein, of MU's Division of Plant Sciences.

No other flower is associated with the observance of Easter more than the lily. Its beautiful white flowers are symbolic of purity, joy, hope and life. However, lily was cultivated by civilized man long before it became associated with Easter and has symbolic meaning to many different religions.

The name "lily" is applied chiefly (and correctly) to any member of the genus Lilium. A member of the Liliaceae family, this genus contains more than 100 species, all of which are herbaceous perennials that arise from bulbs and produce large, showy flowers. Most are native to temperate regions of the northern hemisphere.

In China, lily was used as a valuable source of food. The latter use probably is what caused it to spread throughout Europe. The Victorian Era saw the discovery of many new types of lilies as European explorers introduced them from the Orient.

The lily species used for Easter decoration today is Lilium longifolium, which is believed to have originated in Japan. Writings there date it back to at least the 17th century. Its white, long-trumpeted flowers are spectacular both in form and fragrance. However, this species of lily is not reliably hardy in the Midwest and, if planted outdoors, must be given a protected location if it is to bloom in future years.

As mentioned above, most garden lilies planted today are hybrids that can be classified into one of three different groups: Asiatic hybrids, Aurelian hybrids and Oriental hybrids. The Asiatic hybrids are the earliest flowering of the three. They typically bloom during early summer on strong, erect stems. The flowers of Asiatic hybrids tend to exert themselves more upward than other types, although there are pendulous types as well. They typically achieve a mature height of 24-48 inches.

The Oriental hybrids are the latest to bloom and typically are at their showiest in August. Their colorful and very fragrant flowers are produced on plants that range in height from 24-48 inches. The Oriental hybrids are the least tolerant of cold temperatures of the three groups and, if grown in Mid-Missouri, need winter protection in order to survive. While their somewhat tender nature might limit their popularity as a garden flower, the Oriental hybrids dominate the lily cut flower market.

Whatever the type, garden lilies require much the same care. All are sun-loving plants that tolerate light shade, if necessary. Lilies prefer a fertile, well-drained garden loam. The importance of soil drainage for the survival of bulb plants cannot be overemphasized, and lilies are no exception. If drainage is a problem, incorporate several inches of well-decomposed organic matter into the area to be planted.

Planting depth is also very important for lilies to thrive. Lilies develop roots along the portion of their stem that remains below the surface of the soil. These "stem roots" are very important for both water and nutrient absorption. Therefore, lily bulbs should be planted deep enough for adequate stem root development. Dig a hole so 6-8 inches of soil remain above the top of the bulb after it has been covered. Addition of bone meal to the bottom of the hole also is recommended. Once planted, water the bulb.

An annual maintenance application of a general purpose fertilizer relative low in nitrogen (e.g. 5-10-5) can be made when plants start to break through the soil's surface in spring. Be careful not to over fertilize, since excessive amounts of nitrogen can lead to tall, weak stem growth.

Additionally, adequate amounts of water should be supplied and competing weeds eliminated. Insects generally are not a problem. However, aphids can transmit lily mosaic virus which distorts blooms and causes mottling of foliage. Basal rot of lily bulbs can be a problem, especially in poorly drained soils.

Lilies make excellent cut flowers. Harvest them when the lower buds are showing color but not yet open. When arranging them, remove the bottom leaves and recut the stem at a 45 degree angle. Change the water in the vase every few days or use a floral preservative to prolong their beauty.

Peter Sutter is a lifelong gardening enthusiast and a participant in the MU Extension's Callaway County Master Gardener program. Gardening questions can be sent to [email protected]

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