“Fresh tears stood on her cheeks as does the honeydew upon a gathered lily almost withered.”
— William Shakespeare, “Titus Andronicus,” 1594
This passage makes it clear that Shakespeare had closely observed and appreciated the beauty of morning dew on the petals of a lily, and he knew that the flower’s freshness does not last long.
The romantic symbolism Shakespeare develops in this scene of “Titus Andronicus” reads in utter contrast to the play’s otherwise grisly theme; still, the passage represents how Shakespeare often used the silky smooth, pure white petals of Lilium candidum, the Madonna lily, to symbolize female beauty and elegance, as well as sweetness and pure innocence.
The Bard mentioned more than 250 different plants among his plays and poems. As a master storyteller, he often incorporated plant lore and folk wisdom that he knew would be familiar to a wide audience — from Queen Elizabeth I and nobles of her court to commoners who scraped up a penny so they could stand and watch the entertainment as “groundlings.”
I think knowing age-old stories about lilies, as well as other flowers and plants in our gardens, adds another level of interest to gardening. I may grow a Madonna lily because of its beauty and fragrance, but perhaps I’ll get even more enjoyment out of planting the bulbs this fall if I think of the scene in Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline,” when Iachimo says admiringly, “How bravely thou becomest thy bed, fresh lily!“ And next summer, when I’m removing the spent flowers, I may quote Shakespeare’s King Henry VIII, when rejected Queen Katherine laments, “Like the lily that once was mistress of the field and flourished, I’ll hang my head, and perish.”
Of course, it’s also important to know how to care for our garden lilies. For example, if you want to grow a Madonna lily, you should know that their needs are a bit different from other lilies. Whereas most lily bulbs should be planted deeply in soil, the tips of L. candidum bulbs (called scaly bulbs) should be covered with only one inch of soil.
Plant bulbs this fall in sets of three, ideally where they will receive morning sunshine and protection from wind and late-afternoon sun. Like other lilies, Madonnas prefer their “heads in the sun and their feet in the shade,” so position them among shorter plants so the base of the lily stems are shaded, which prevents the soil just above the bulb from drying out too quickly. Keep in mind that Madonna lilies will grow 4-6 feet tall.
Lilies do best in well-draining soils, amended with compost, that are neutral to slightly alkaline (pH 7.0-7.5). Acidic soils should be amended with lime before or during planting. Bulbs should be kept moist but not wet year-round; mulching is helpful. Once planted, the bulbs will soon sprout new growth as they set roots.
In the winter, keep new growth cut back to the basal crown at ground level to help prevent the development of a fungal disease common to lilies called Botrytis or gray mold. Early next spring, add a low-nitrogen, high-phosphorous fertilizer to boost the plant’s energy for blooming in late spring or early summer. Madonna lilies will grow several beautiful, fragrant flowers on each stem, so remove spent flowers as they go. Next fall, propagate more lilies by dividing the small bulblets from the parent bulb.
Madonna lilies are extremely toxic to cats, but not dogs or humans. For more about lilies, see my blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.
If you enjoy stories about plants featured in Shakespeare’s plays, plus information about how to care for similar plants, join me for the “Flowers and Plants of Shakespeare” garden tour from 10-11:30 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 16, at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road, Central Point. Cost is $10 for early birds, $15 the day of the tour. Register at 541-776-7371 or http://bit.ly/JacksonMG2017.
— Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.