Rescuing the Madonna Lily: Lilactree Farm Garden Notes, No. 4, 2017

– Posted in: Lilactree Farm

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     ‘Gardening is an artificial practice…It is a set piece of three-dimensional drama and to keep the show running we cannot or should not be surprised nor aggrieved if we run into a range of frustrating obstacles. The picture created is a work of art, in its ephemeral way…’

                                                                             Christopher Lloyd, Gardening Year

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The Madonna Lily has begun to flower again. That’s no great triumph for the local gardener;  Lilium candidum is one of the staples of the English cottage garden and it is my own thoughtlessness or carelessness that has kept it from being a dependable success here.

Lilium regale and Lilium candidum

Many years ago it grew in our White Bed along with yellow-throated Regal lilies and gypsophila, but as that bed fell increasingly into shade, the lilies stopped flowering and most of the plants disappeared completely and had to be replaced by shade-tolerant species.

One of the Madonna lilies refused to give up, each year producing a small basal rosette of slender dark green leaves, limp and morose, but no flowering stem rose up to remind us of its earlier glories. Could it be revived? Eleanor Perényi confessed (in Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, 1981) that it was among ‘the lilies (that) have failed me utterly,’ and that though she had followed Constance Spry’s recommendation (Garden Notebook, 1940) to plant the bulb ‘in a trench filled with wood ashes…it didn’t work for me’.

One  of the pleasures of gardening is learning of a plant’s history and its geographical distribution. The Madonna Lily – also known as the St. Anthony’s Lily, because the medieval Church ‘associated it with the Blessed Virgin and St. Anthony of Padua’ – turns up on vases and in frescoes from the Cretan/Minoan period, 1500-1800 BC (An English Florilegium, 1987, with meticulous paintings by Mary Grierson), and we are told that its specific name – candidum – was given to it by Virgil ‘because it was of such a rich, glistening white’ (Curtis’s Flower Garden Displayed, 1981, from the Curtis Botanical Magazine, 1787-1807). It seems to have been first recorded from a distribution at ‘the eastern end of the Mediterranean’, and was subsequently spread by Roman soldiers because it was widely valued as a vegetable (I haven’t tried it) and for its medical value, so that its early domestication ‘roughly corresponds with the size of the Roman Empire at its largest extent in AD 117’ (Curtis). Among its therapeutic properties: ‘to soothe corns (presumably particularly valuable for legionnaires), to cure epilepsy and dropsy, as a treatment for baldness, and to take away the wrinkles of the face.’ (I  should try this, but I am never sure whether I am to eat the plant – its flowers, its fruit, its leaves, its roots? Cooked? Uncooked? – or to rub it on).

The recommended time for planting and transplanting lilies is the fall, but the Madonna Lily has a reputation for being difficult to transplant at any time, so I was far from confident that I could move successfully our remaining specimen. But nothing was to be gained by leaving it, and I was encouraged when I read in Mrs C. W. Earle: Pot-Pourri From a Surrey Garden (1897) that while moving ‘this beautiful, stately lily’ in October or November is ‘fatal’, it could be safely moved in mid-summer after its spring growth ‘had dried up and died down without flowering.’ We have the right alkaline soil conditions, we could give it a sunnier place in the Maple Bed where, as some of its neighbouring plants flagged in mid-summer, its basal rosette would be open to stimulating light.

In July, 2015, I nervously dug around the few scrawny leaves in the White Bed. Though I knew the leaves were dying back, I was anxious to preserve them, which meant finding the bulb – how deep was it? – without breaking their connection to the bulb.

Luck was with me. The bulb was small, as though it had been on a starvation diet,  the few scrawny leaves had an air of disbelief, and I wondered what hope there was for the bulb in its new surroundings. Lilies typically like deep planting, with 8cm (3”) of soil over the top of the plant but Lilium candidum is, the RHS Encyclopaedia tells us, a notable exception, preferring shallower planting.  The soil was amended to give the bulb a richer life; it was planted with about 5cm (2”)  over it.

The leaves stay evergreen beneath the snow and they were there, looking greener and perkier to my hopeful eye, in the spring of 2016. They were well watered in early summer, carefully watched for lily beetle, and the rosette looked steadily stronger, healthier.

Lilium candidum with Verbascum chaixii

Their neighbours included the tall Verbascum chaixii, but these finished a first flowering by mid-July and were then cut back, so that the basal leaves of the lily were not crowded or deeply shaded.

The régime worked, and this spring, as a stalk with two buds emerged from the rosette, I knew that the Madonna Lily had returned.
Lilium candidum

The flowers are of simple beauty, ‘the invariable six-petalled chalice’ with a small yellow suffusion at the base, the stamens with delicate mustardy-orange anthers. Candid, white, but also a proud, annunciatory reticence[1]. Add a romantically caressing perfume and it is easy to understand why the renowned Irish gardener and garden writer, Helen Dillon, would describe Lilium candidum as ‘the loveliest of all lilies’.

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July the Fourteenth, Bastille Day and the lindens that line the Maze Path are, on a humming summer afternoon, in flower.

There is a connection, in my mind at least, the will-weakening magic of the linden perfume reminding me of a passage in Iris Murdoch’s Under The Net. It is Bastille Day in Paris and ‘on that day the city lets down its tumultuous hair, which the high summer anoints with warmth and perfume.’ Jake sees Anna, the woman of his dreams, in the dense crowds watching the celebratory fireworks, her face lit by a street lamp. He notices her ‘unutterably graceful and characteristic gesture’ with which she gathered up her skirt from behind as she descends a flight of steps.

When the fireworks end, he tries to catch up with her as she walks off apparently unaware of his presence. Sometimes he comes nearer, seeing ‘a golden coronet of hair some way ahead’, sometimes she disappears momentarily in the dispersing crowds. She enters the Tuileries gardens, and when she stopped walking, he stopped too. ‘I wanted to prolong the enchantment of these moments…That she was thinking of me now, that she was ready for me, I could not after this long pursuit any longer doubt…I caught up with her and spread out my arms. “Alors, chérie?” said a soft voice[2]. The woman who turned to face me was not Anna.’

It is simple to tease out some of the intent and implications of this philosophical parable, its hints and signals slowly released to the reader over eight pages as we follow Anna through the Paris streets. For me, the passage provokes a tumult of emotions, of reminiscences, of memories, of excitement, of anxiety. I first read Under The Net when I was seventeen or eighteen. My recognition, partial no doubt, of the author’s overt existentialism, that nothing in the world was uncontroversially true because nothing was what it seemed, that the search for the real and true must inevitably lead to delusion, that life was  filled with questions to which there might be no answer, that morality was a social fabrication ‘used to keep the strong in awe’ and the weak in servitude, that rationality was insufficient, was an exhilarating and depressing turnstile into adulthood.

These and other thoughts surged back to me in the past few days as the sultry perfume of the lindens made me recall the sultry passage in Iris Murdoch’s first novel. ‘Gardens are not innocent playthings,’ someone wrote; they can often be the provocative madeleines of our imaginations and our memories.

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The lines from Christopher Lloyd’s Gardening Year reminded me – if I needed reminding – of the close association between gardening and the more traditional arts. In earlier Notes I have frequently been tempted into comparisons between gardening and poetry, gardening and music; more recently I have begun to think of gardening as a drama parallel to ‘real’ life with the gardener as the stage director coping with, as stage directors must, a text that is sometimes obscure and often obdurate, a set designer who irritatingly flits off to other assignments, and actors who are sometimes diligent and cooperative and at other times vain, capricious and even malevolent. The stage, the setting is critical; directors must manipulate it to bring lucidity to the text. But if gardening is, as I believe, the ‘most complex of the arts’, it is because of the serendipitous rôle of the elements, their capacity to make or break a performance. It is seldom one thing or another, but ‘a range of frustrating obstacles’ mixed with an offsetting range of blessings.

This spring and early summer, following a mild winter, have been almost all blessings. The low temperatures, particularly overnight, and the daily rainfall have combined to produce rapid and substantial growth and to keep flowering plants in admirable condition for longer than is habitual.

Tulip tree flowering

A good example is the tulip tree, flowering here for only the second time. The first fully opened flowers were celebrated on June 14; a handfull of the many scores of well-formed flowers persists a month later.

Daphne alpina

The giant Daphne alpina at the driveway gate was in unblemished flower for at least  three weeks, its heavy perfume mingling with that of thyme underfoot.

In both cases, typical summer heat would have brought flowering to a swifter end.
Abies koreana

On the Eastern Slope, the slow-growing Abies koreana  produced a fine clutch of its handsome  violet-green cones over foliage green above, white underneath.

We sowed seed of this on February 25, 1989 and obtained four seedlings. Eventually planted out in less than hospitable conditions, three survived. It has taken almost 30 years for this plant, the largest of the three, to reach 105cm (42”) with a 90cm (36”) spread.

Two dodecatheons

Many visitors are surprised by the easy-to-grow self-seeding Shooting Star, Dodecatheon meadia, small  plants in the driveway rock garden, a white form as well as the rose-purple type.

Most of the 14 or so dodecatheon species are North American, mostly from the West Coast, but D. meadia is ‘found in the American South, as well as the Upper Midwest, Kansas, New York, Pennsylvania and the Canadian province of Manitoba’ (Wikipedia). Hence it can be described in Canadian plant catalogues as ‘native,’ an appellation that will cause the plants to be healthier, grow faster and flower more prodigiously.
Hosta Regal Splendor

Our favourite hosta, ‘Regal Splendor’ looks as though it has been fed on Royal Jelly, as do many unwanted plants.

Lilies other than L. candidum have experienced formidable growth and flowering; clematis, even the low-growing herbaceous species, have rocketed skywards. Above all, the impression has been of a fertile greenness as the toile de fond  for extravagant flowering both within and outside the garden, and the countryside has never looked more prosperously verdant.

Maureen and Brian Bixley, July 2017.
All photos ©Brian Bixley and used with permission.


[1]  Voltaire’s ‘Candide, innocent of all innocents’. (Julian Barnes).  Shaw’s Candida, as one would expect, a more wordly innocence: ‘Her ways are those of a woman who has found that she can always manage people by engaging their affection, and who does so frankly and instinctively without the smallest scruple…Her serene brow, courageous eyes, and well set mouth and chin signify largeness of mind and dignity of character to ennoble her cunning in the affections.’

[2]  The feminine form, ‘chérie’, is puzzling.

About the Author

Brian Bixley and his wife live in a Victorian farmhouse 70 miles north-west of Toronto, where he has slowly been making a garden in the middle of open farm fields. While he has particular interests in clematis (the species), alpine plants and, more recently, unusual trees, his main concern is making a garden that is satisfying in a number of ways, and which relates to and “borrows” the beautiful countryside that surrounds it. Brian’s book, Essays on Gardening in a Cold Climate, is available for $20 (US or Canadian), plus shipping. His new book, Ten New Snowdrops, is a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the passion for new snowdrop forms. CAN$15.00 Click here to order them.

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.

Brian Bixley. August 3, 2017, 9:02 am

What a wonderful memory, ‘a massive planting (of Madonna lilies) at the Alhambra.’ Thanks for your comment. I noticed, as I was ordering a few bulbs for fall planting from Veseys, how many lilies there were, including the easy-to-propagate and grow Regal lilies, but no Lilium candidum.

Matt Mattus July 31, 2017, 3:11 pm

So timely, as I saw a few bulbs for Madonna Lilies for sale this summer and was reminded about their delightful scent and presence in the garden – I can’t even remember that last time that I have seen any in a garden. I grew many about 20 years ago, but fondly remember a massive planting in Spain at the Alahambra back in the late 70’s. Thanks for such a comprehensive and well-researched article!