Lily Tree Nonsense

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This article has been written to address one of the most asked questions we received by phone last year (2008).  That question was "are there really LILY TREES?"   It arises from a Canadian mail order firm using the term LILY TREES in their advertising and catalogs.  This article is relevant for those gardening in Zone 3 on the Canadian Prairies or anywhere else where winters reach - 30 Celcius or colder.

In spring of 2008 I received a catalog from a well-known mail order firm located in Ontario, which retails a variety of perennials and bulbs and mass mails their catalogs across the country.  They had advertisements featuring Orienpet lilies and were calling them 'Lily Trees'.  I had a good chuckle, realizing immediately that these people must not grow lilies themselves or do any research on them.  I see in th 2009 version they have registered the term 'Lily Tree' as a trademark - that tells me they must be intent on misleading gardeners for the long term and using that phrase last year brought huge amounts of sales their way!  Other misleading statements in the ad include 'This rapid growth comes in part from the Lily Tree's unique ability to offshoot new stems from a single bulb.'  Hmmm....most lilies do exactly that once the bulb reaches a mature size.  They have also rated them as hardy for Zones 3-9, another statement I heartily disagree with.

OT stem average heightOT Northern Sensation - well established have not been disturbed in 5 yrs.Lets start with the height - the average height of an Orienpet is 4 feet tall, or 1.2 metres. I would never consider this a height that could be compared to a tree.  Yes, there is the odd one (Scheherazade or Starburst Sensation for example) which can attain taller heights, I have seen photos of stems loaded with flowers that were taller than the person in the photo.  I have seen in person, and many photos of lily breeders own hybrid orienpets which grow to heights of 5-6 feet as well.  But keep in mind, all these people are lily specialists, long time experienced gardeners as well, who know exactly what and how to pamper their lilies to the utmost.  Almost all of them also gardened in a much warmer zone than 3.   I have also had a few customers tell me themselves how tall their Orienpet got for them the first year, but I highly doubt it did the same the following year if they were in Alberta or Saskatchewan!  I should note that some have also said they had similar results as our trials found.  The tallest any orienpet has ever grown here in my Zone 3, unpampered garden is 5 feet and that was one wet year followed by another with plenty of snow early in the season which stayed all winter long and  provided extra insulation.  The next year they were back to 4 feet tall and fewer blooms.  Obviously optimum conditions can influence vigour, but most gardeners do not have optimum conditions do they?

After growing a wide variety of Orienpets for the past 10 years, I already know they are NOT reliably hardy in Zone 3.  Zone 4 I believe so, but never Zone 3.  In the cold zones such as the Prairies these types will only do well, grow to heights of perhaps 5-6 feet (but very few varieties remember) in their first year when spring planted and the bulbs are already quite large.  Typically if you were to plant an Orienpet in Fall, it may or may not sprout up the following spring with 1 normal sized stem (certainly not tree-like).  Prairie winters are hard on them when fall planted, they do not receive the much needed extra time to develop a healthy root system before winter sets in and the ground freezes.  This would be why I encourage cold zone customers to order them and plant them in spring rather than fall.  If they insist, and I am able, I will ship them an orienpet straight from the potted sales stock with instructions to plant as is, stem cut off at soil level but complete roots intact as this allows for a much greater success rate.

stem thicknessSpeaking of cutting stems, now there I see a similarity between trees and orienpet lilies that are healthy and thriving - stems are indeed huge and sturdy - but again not on all varieties and usually not seen until they've been in the ground a number of years.  I often need an axe to chop the sturdiest down, regardless of height.  But having said that, I'll also state that I do not cut back the orienpet stems in fall as they need every ray of sunshine coming their way, even after hard frost has made the foliage limp.  They stay put in my garden until spring cleanup when I still need the axe to get rid of them!

Another fact worth noting; what I usually find when harvesting orienpet bulbs in fall, is that they are much smaller than they were in the spring.  There is a very reasonable explanation for this, that being all lily bulbs use tremendous reserves of their energy flowering, which reduces the bulbs size drastically in some cases.  It takes 6-8 weeks for the bulb to build up all that energy again, and since the orienpets bloom later (usually mid August to mid September here) they haven't had that 6-8 weeks of sunny, warm weather after blooming to build reserves before winter.  Thus, a smaller bulb going into winter and in spring when it wakes up, resulting in less vigour the 2nd year in the garden.

Overall, orienpet lilies are stronger and sturdier than the average asiatic, this is due to their genetics which include in many cases the excellent garden traits of trumpet and/or aurelian lilies which are also not at all hardy for me in Zone 3, not even if I pamper them.  Strange it seems that both types seperately result in failure here, and yet a cross between the two has some success.

Now how about that statement 'This rapid growth comes in part from the Lily Tree's unique ability to offshoot new stems from a single bulb.'  Wow, I would think any commercial grower and seller of lilies would know that ANY lily bulb big enough has the ability to offshoot more than one stem from the main bulb, in no way is this unique to orienpet lilies!  In time, and depending on variety, that bulb will split allowing for at least one new stem from each bulb and of course more than one from the bigger of the bulbs.  That is one of the reasons we all love lilies isn't it, because they multiply on their own?  I have to disagree with that statement for there is nothing unique about a 'lily tree' doing this, they all do it!!

Ah, but you are now wondering how I can say all this and yet I grow and sell them here in my zone 3 garden.....I do indeed, but I have experienced just as many losses as successes over the many years of history I have with them, and I'm not labeling them as lily trees which is the heart and reason for this article.  I also plant strategically using nearby trees, buildings, etc. as windbreaks, snow breaks and such for less hardy varieties.  A rather expensive few years it has been in respect to evaluation, but necessary in order to give accurate and relevant advice on growing these lilies!  Besides, I had to find a reliable way of overwintering these beauties in Zone 3 because they are indeed irresistible when you see them in bloom, and then there is the fragrance.....

So, in closing I am officially going on record to say that Orienpet lilies are NOT lily trees, not here on the Prairies anyway.  I have grown each variety but one, labeled as a lily tree in this mail order catalog in question, and not one of them has grown taller than 4 feet here.  By all means give orienpets a try if you are in Zone 3, for there really is no way to know if they will be hardy, reliable or not until you try one - but don't be disappointed when they fail to achieve tree status in your eyes, and please don't blame your gardening skills on their lack of tree growth or lack of vigour after the first year either!  Be sure to read all 3 articles here regarding my own trials and tribulations with Orienpets over the years.

a real tree lilya real tree lilyNow, if you want a tree-like lily in Zone 3, best be keeping your eyes on some of the Fellner hybrids we are evaluating currently.  How do hardy 5 to 6 foot stems with 50 flowers and blooms for 2-3 weeks in vivid and unfading colors sound to you?  Oh my, Mr. Fellner is definitely right, the best is yet to come!