Joined at Birth?

– Posted in: Garden chores, Plant info

image of pink oriental lilies bloomingOn Thursday the 3rd I decided to move the first of several Oriental lilies. As I mentioned here, I wanted to move them out of an area that I am going to make over into a shrub border. These lilies have been on the northwest side of a very well established lilac bush since they were delivered here in spring of 1997. The bulbs were on a very good sale–24 for $19.95–which even with shipping came out to not quite a buck a bulb. I intended to plant them in groups in several locations around the house, which in my pregnancy-induced optimism I was sure I would have plenty of time to plant, even though my tenth child was due in early April.

It’s a good thing I had spent the previous autumn preparing a bed around the single white lilac in the front yard. By the time the lily bulbs arrived in late May, I was experiencing night-long attacks of gall bladder pain roughly once a week. Surgery was called for, but I was resisting because of the logistical complications involved. I was breastfeeding a baby and I really didn’t want to wean one so young off the breast. Surely there was some other way of dealing with a recalcitrant gall bladder short of removal? (If anyone reading this is suffering from gall-bladder pain, try keeping your consumption of fat under 30 grams per day. It does work, but it’s incredibly hard to do.) The bulbs languished in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator while I worked these things out. When I began to fear that “languish” might soon turn to “rot,” I decided I’d better plant them in the only available space, even though that wasn’t where I had intended for them to go.

Despite the restrictions on my time and energy, I followed the instructions in the White Flower Farm booklet to the best of my ability. The soil was already dug and amended to as well-drained and fertile a condition as I could make it. The depth of the bulb was supposed to be 6″-8″. I took that to mean 6 to 8 inches of soil above the bulb, with the bulb itself adding another 2″ to 3″ to the planting depth. It’s possible I dug a little deeper so I could put compost at the bottom of the planting hole, or perhaps I had read that lilies endure cold winters better when planted deeper; I don’t know. I do have a vague recollection that most of the holes were a foot in depth. I planted them over a period of several days, while the baby napped. I had a second gall bladder attack in the same week soon after. I did eventually have surgery in July.

You can see these lilies have a history with me. Sadly, over the years their numbers have dwindled.Only five stems were standing this fall as I contemplated moving them. Some surely fell victim to voles, who may not have been able to reach the bulbs, but most certainly feasted on the stems. Some probably dwindled due to lack of adequate sunlight, coupled with my failing to feed them each year. Some undoubtedly were done in by drought. Clearly, a move to the full sun and more recently amended–and weeded–soil of the peony bed would do the survivors a world of good.

But knowing how deep I planted them, and knowing the tangle of grass and goldenrod covering the surface of the soil where they are currently growing, I was not looking forward to the job. The weather report finally persuaded me that if this job was going to get done at all, it had better be soon. My goal was to move one lily a day, starting with the most vigorous one, until they were all moved.

Only one small problem . . .

image of young girl laying on grass with two dug and cleaned lilies on either side of herAs I gradually and oh-so-carefully pried off the mat of grass rhizomes and goldenrod runners and slowly dug the soil away from the stem, I became aware of a distinct curve to the subterranean portion of the lily’s stem (the one on the right in the photo). The deeper I dug, the more it curved, to the point where I lost it altogether a couple of times. Finally, after prying away the umpty-umpth small rock, I found the bulb. Only, it looked awfully big. About twice as big–my eye drifted over to the second thickest lily stem, not more than (and maybe less than) a foot away. Oh no, are these two lilies actually part of the same plant? Siamese twins, as it were?

Yes and no. Well, maybe. They did not seem to be attached at the basal plate, though they were touching. It could be they were planted next to each other, and in the course of covering them over with dirt, they got moved closer together. But what a coincidence that they are the same color and the two most vigorous lilies I have! If the second lily did come from the first, could it have grown to such size in the course of seven years? These are questions for someone more expert than I in the ways of lilies. What I do know is that I was planning on digging up one lily, and wound up digging and replanting two.

closeup image of two lily bulbsLily bulbs are quite different from say, narcissus bulbs, or even onions. They have visible scales instead of layers, and roots grow along the stem. Not only that, but on the part of the stem beyond where the roots were growing but still underground, were tiny little bulbils with roots coming out of them. The bulbils looked like miniature versions of the scales on the main bulb, and both bulbils and scales can be planted separately if you desire to make more lilies. The stem on the largest lily was 7/8″ in diameter, and reminded me of an asparagus. This would not surprise you much if you knew that asparagus was in the Liliaceae family. And almost all lily bulbs are edible, though not as tasty to humans (most are bitter) as they are to rodents.

That’s as far as I got with the lily moving project, and since a cold front is moving in today, I may not get any further this year. But, boy, it sure was an adventure.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

Now, the digging and dividing of perennials, the general autumn cleanup and the planting of spring bulbs are all an act of faith. One carries on before the altar of delayed gratification, until the ground freezes and you can’t do any more other than refill the bird feeder and gaze through the window, waiting for the snow. . . . Meanwhile, it helps to think of yourself as a pear tree or a tulip. You will blossom spectacularly in the spring, but only after the required period of chilling.

~Adrian Higgins in The Washington Post, November 6, 2013

Comments on this entry are closed.

cyndy November 10, 2005, 7:59 pm

What a wonderful story Kathy!
And the photo’s are great too!

Kathy Purdy November 10, 2005, 6:56 pm

Well, it could mean that. But you see, between Deirdre and child #10 (Owen) there was another baby, Caleb. That makes 12 children. We went over this before at this entry, including the comments. Yes, the lilies that survived are quite vigorous. It must be good genes because I am not doing anything to help them along.

Zoey November 10, 2005, 6:44 pm

Kathy, Did you say 10th child? Her older brother? Does that mean you have 11 children? Wow! I can’t imagine (having only one myself). It must be very active and fun around your home!

Those lilies are beautiful and about the largest I have seen.

Kathy Purdy November 7, 2005, 11:58 am

Well, the newborn baby mentioned in my entry is actually her older brother. And I, ahem, thought I had taken several shots of the lilies by themselves, but somehow none of them appeared on the memory card of the digital camera. (Technology strikes again!) There were only the two “joke” shots I took of my three-year-old, so that’s what I used.

jenn November 7, 2005, 11:53 am

Love the kid pic. What a great way to demonstate size, both of the lily and of the future kid!