Lilies are renowned for their undeniable beauty and fragrant scent. The first lily known to western civilisation was the Madonna lily, but like the rose, the lily has been appreciated for centuries.
Over the years lilies have been associated with goddesses Britomartis, Hera and others because of their beauty. The Romans and the Greeks held the lily as not only a representation of their gods, but also as a food and to treat ailments. The lily was thought to have magical properties – by turning it into a salve or a herbal potion you could remedy burns and sores, clean wounds or relieve fevers and arthritic symptoms. European beauties even believed until the late 19th century that lilies mixed with honey fought off old age by clearing the skin and getting rid of wrinkles. Although It has since been proven that lilies hold no ‘magical’ qualities, they are still considered good enough to eat – for thousands of years the Chinese have been using the starchy bulb of the lily as an ingredient in cooking.
As religion changed to Christianity, the symbolic meaning and appreciation of the lily continued to where it stands today as a symbol of virgin martyrs, numerous saints and the resurrection of Jesus at Easter. That’s not forgetting the symbolic meanings of chastity, virtue and death. Christians worshipped and respected this flower, growing and cultivating it around monasteries from the 9th century through to the early 16th century.
In the 1900s, when discovery and exploration was the fashion, up to 100 species of lily were found in China and Japan. These were shipped into Europe and England by bulk and introduced into gardens which is why we see such a widespread variety of lilies today. The lily is commonly envisaged as being white, but in fact it can bloom in numerous colours – only true blue is not found in a lily. They also come in a variety of shapes, ranging from trumpet-shaped and upward-facing to the hanging varieties that look like bells.
The blooming seasons of the lily species, like any other flower, are dependent on the care they receive and the weather. With good odds, the lily will bloom from the start of spring and throughout the summer. The Asiatic lily, however, will bloom throughout the whole year. Be careful where you plant them though – lilies are highly poisonous to cats, causing kidney failure and even death.
The lily’s name derives from the Latin word for the plant, ‘lilium’, which means innocence and purity. The general symbolism of the lily has withstood the test of time, but the Japanese and Chinese actually have different meanings for it – to the Chinese, lilies mean ‘forever in love’ and Feng Shui followers see it as an emblem of summer and abundance.