There are many more types of lilies than you can count on your fingers and toes. In fact, it’s not exactly clear how many different types there are. There have been well over 100 different species of lilies identified and many more hybrids or cultivars, the number of which continues to grow.

Some lilies have huge flowers while others are small and dainty. These flowers have been associated with everything from weddings to funerals, but perhaps most commonly to Easter. The Easter lily is a favorite of many and you’ll find pot after pot of these beautiful plants in flower stores and supermarkets every year as the Easter holiday approaches. While Easter lilies have large blossoms, there is a small, woodland white lily that is also called an Easter lily, although the name may be somewhat colloquial. Another woodland lily of the same type is the Glacier lily, which has a bright yellow flower. There are, of course, all shapes, sizes, and colors of lilies that are planted in gardens plus a number of plants that are called lilies but are not members of the lily family.

The Lily Family

The various species of lilies are members of the genus Lilium, which in turn belongs to the Family Liliaceae. All of them grow from bulbs and all have, according to some accounts, large prominent flowers. In this case, large is a somewhat subjective term as the flowers vary from extremely large and showy to somewhat small, on the order of two inches or so in diameter. The range of the lily family encompasses the temperate zone of the Northern Hemisphere. While some species do well in sub-tropical climates, most tend to be cool weather plants. In North America, wild lilies range from southern Canada down to the southern tier of the United States. A few of the wild species grow in grasslands but most are found in woodlands.

There are people who live in cities who have rarely, if ever, seen a wild lily in its natural habitat. The vast majority of them seen in gardens or in the marketplace are hybrids or cultivars, which are generally sold as bulbs or in pots. Wild lilies are seldom found in pots. Instead, they will often carpet a woodland area in the spring, putting on a show which will normally last for one to two weeks.

Classification

You can find lists of the different types of lilies in many different places online. Many of these lists can be quite long, especially if those who have put the lists together are striving for completeness, a property unlikely to ever be achieved. Unless one of these lists is accompanied by images, it will be of little use to most of those who are unfamiliar with the plant type. It can even be somewhat overwhelming to those who claim to know about lilies but are not experts on the subject.

To make things a little easier, a horticultural classification has been developed by which they are divided into nine different divisions. This horticultural classification is more for the benefit of gardeners than for botanists since eight of the divisions are devoted to hybrids. The ninth division is called the Species Division. This encompasses all species of wild lilies which, as was mentioned earlier, numbers over 100. Most of them remain wild. While many, if not most, can be transplanted, not all take to being moved from their natural setting. Some species can obviously be transplanted or there would not be nearly as many hybrids on the market as there are today. Nevertheless, there are a number of wild lily species that can be successfully grown in gardens, a practice fairly common in Asia.

The horticultural classification is easier to follow for gardeners than is another means by which lilies are categorized. The other means would be the standard classical taxonomy that is subscribed to in the botanical word. The horticultural classification arranges the lilies according to various traits or origins the plants or flowers have in common. It is more suitable for a plant which is common in the commercial world and is in most cases a hybrid.

The Nine Horticultural Classifications or Divisions

Section 1 – Asiatic Hybrids: These tend to be early bloomers and are also considered among the easiest of the lily varieties to grow. These hybrids are derived from a number of different species. They come in a wider variety of colors than is the case with any of the other horticultural divisions.

Section 2 – Martagon Hybrids: These tend to be tall-growing plants featuring whorled leaves. Most of the blossoms on these flowers are down-facing and more than a few are characterized by patterns such as spots. They come in a wide range of colors, although not so wide a range as is the case with the Asiatic hybrids. Martagons are, by and large, cool or temperate weather plants. They seldom do well in tropical or subtropical climates nor do they grow well in humid conditions.

Section 3 – Candidum Hybrids: These flowers are European lilies, few of which are offered commercially. Consequently, this is the smallest of the divisions, even though there are a number of different European lily plant species.

Section 4 – American Hybrids: These flowers are grown from special bulbs that are characterized by jointed scales. They are often planted from the scales that have been removed from a parent bulb and are then planted as a bulb. These hybrids are mainly derived from four different species of wild lilies. Although the wild species can be difficult to grow commercially, their hybrids are often grown in woodland settings just as the true wild species would grow. They tend to spread and eventually carpet large areas. Most American hybrids are used strictly as garden plants. American hybrids grown in the western part of the country have tended to be derived from different species than those that are most commonly grown in the eastern part of the country.

Section 5 – Longiflorum Hybrids: Unlike most lilies, longiflorums are often grown from seed. Most are white trumpets. These are large, waxy flowers which many people regard as being the only “real” or “true” lily. Many, if not most, of these flowers will be found as potted plants. Longiflorum hybrids also dominate the cut flower market. They can be grown in the garden but are not noted for being particularly hardy.

Section 6 – Aurelian and Trumpet Hybrids: Where the longiflorum are seldom found in gardens because of their lack of hardiness, the case is quite the opposite for the Aurelian and Trumpet hybrids. These flowers were developed from a particularly hardy species of wild lily. Also, the Aurelian and the Trumpet come in a variety of colors and not just white. These two types differ mainly in their bloom time with the Aurelian blooming somewhat later in the season than the Trumpet and tending to have stems that are taller and more willowy. Neither can be called a spring plant or an Easter lily since they normally come into bloom in late July or even August. Both types are quite hardy and both types produce fragrant blossoms.

Section 7 – Oriental Hybrids: Oriental lilies are considered by many to be difficult to grow which may be one reason wild ones tend to be popular in many Asian gardens. On the other hand, some of the hybrids in this division are so outstandingly beautiful that many gardeners will willingly take up the challenge of trying to grow them. Those who are successful are more than amply rewarded. There are enough strains of this division that have been, and are being, developed that Oriental hybrids are becoming more and more common with each passing year.

Section 8 – Miscellaneous: As the name suggests, this is somewhat of a catch-all section. It mostly consists of flowers that, because of extensive cross-breeding, have characteristics that can be somewhat difficult to pin down. It would be wrong, however, to consider them the “mutts” of the world of lilies. Many varieties have been carefully cultured over the years with some truly outstanding results. There are three major subdivisions within the miscellaneous hybrid division. The LA hybrids were derived by crossing Easter lilies (longiflorum) with Asiatic lilies. The OT hybrids represent a cross between Oriental lilies and either Trumpet or Aurelian lilies, while the OA hybrids are an Oriental/Asiatic cross. Many, if not most, of these flowers are known for both their beauty as cut flowers and their hardiness as garden flowers.

Section 9 – Species: As noted earlier, this division is made up of the 100 or more species of wild lilies and does not include cultivars. While they have been derived from a number of different species, several of those species that are considered outstanding in their own right include L. candidum, L. lancifolium, L. martagon, L. pardalinum, and L. regale. Seeds for the L. candidum and L. martagon species, along with seeds for several other species, are commercially available.

Other Ways to Categorize

Plant companies that sell lily plants, bulbs, or seeds will often group them together in terms of their physical characteristics rather than by horticultural division. Besides height of the plant and relative hardiness, lilies can be categorized by their flower aspect, their flower form, or both.

  • Flower aspect indicates the direction in which blooms tend to face. They are up-facing, down-facing, or out-facing.
  • The four flower forms are trumpet-shaped, bowl-shaped, flat, or with strongly recurved petals.

A Few Lily Facts

Toxicity – There have been numerous reports that these flowers are toxic to cats although many of these reports tend to be vague when it comes to detail. Not all are toxic to cats. Some, like the Calla lily, are mildly toxic. Others, like the Easter lily and a number of the woodland lilies, are extremely toxic. Some types are toxic to humans but do not appear to present a problem to dogs. If you were to classify types of lilies in terms of their toxicity, the list would mainly be of interest to cats or, more accurately, to cat lovers. All parts of the Lily of the Valley are highly poisonous to humans but you wouldn’t find that plant listed in any list of toxic lily plants since the Lily of the Valley is not a member of the lily family.

Fragrance – White lilies are usually very fragrant, especially white trumpets. The colored ones tend to have very little fragrance or none at all. An exception is the tiger lily which has what could be described as a “sweet scent.”

Tiger Lilies – The origin of the tiger lily is uncertain. It is known to have come from the orient but it has never been found growing in the wild so it is considered a hybrid. Unlike most hybrids, however, the tiger lily has been given a botanical name; actually two names. One of these names is L. lancifolium. Its other botanical name gives a better clue as to the type of lily it is: the botanical name is L. tigrinum.

Symbolism – Like many other flowers, different types of lilies convey different meanings. The Calla lily is a symbol of majestic beauty and certainly lives up to this symbolism. The Easter lily is a symbol of life and resurrection. White ones generally mean purity, majesty, or virginity. An orange lily can be seen as a symbol of hatred or disdain while at the same time it can symbolize wealth. To Christians, the lily is symbolic of chastity, purity and piety and is associated with the Virgin Mary. The stem of the flower symbolizes Mary’s faith, the petals symbolize her purity, and the scent is symbolic of her divine qualities.

Folklore – It was once believed that a lily could foretell whether an unborn child would be a boy or a girl. When the expectant mother was offered a lily with one hand and a rose in the other, if she chose the rose, the child would be a girl, if she chose the lily it would be a boy. Perhaps this belief was true 51 percent of the time, a number good enough to sustain the superstition.

The Easter Lily – America’s Lily Poster Child

The Easter lily is native to Japan. A few bulbs were brought to the United States in the 1920s and the plant proved to be very popular. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, bulbs could no longer be imported from Japan. Consequently, the bulbs became scarce and, at the same time, extremely valuable. This scarcity only encouraged more people to raise Easter lilies as a source of wartime income. Today, nearly all of the bulbs that are produced for potted Easter lily plants are grown in a fairly small area straddling the Oregon-California border.

When you purchase a lily plant, bulb, or even seeds, you may not be interested in which horticultural section your lily belongs, nor do you need to be. That information could, however, be of value to the gardener who wants to know a little more about this plant, what its different characteristics can be, and what types might be best for his or her garden.