July 05, 2006

Distinguishing between Oriental and Asiatic lilies

Emerging Asiatic lilyLily season being in full swing, I thought I'd give a quick rundown on how to distinguish between Oriental and Asiatic lilies, seeing as it's a question that seems to come up a fair bit.

There are several different "classes" of lilies: trumpet, Oriental, Asiatic, martagon, longiflorums and others, but the most commonly available are the Orientals and the Asiatics. Both are hybrids, but as groups they have common characteristics.

Asiatics are probably the easiest to grow; they are very winter hardy and reproduce easily. A healthy bulb will often double itself from one year to the next, as well as producing many smaller offspring from bulblets near the soil's surface. They look like little artichokes as they emerge from the soil and then develop a multitude of narrow leaves, bristled all the way up and down the stems.

Foliage on Asiatic liliesThe flowers come in many different colours, from delicate pastels to eye-popping Crayola colours, with the exception of blue. Don't believe any names that contain the word blue. They're lying. The blooms are not fragrant, although I've seen a couple of varieties advertised as such. If it's true, they are the exception and not the rule. In this zone, they will be in bloom in late June and early July, depending on the cultivar.

Oriental lilies, on the other hand, are a bit trickier (but just a bit) to grow and tend to spread much more slowly, mainly by the bulblets on the subterranean stem.

Emerging Oriental lilyThey look more like mini torpedoes as they emerge from the soil, pointy, with the leaves hugging the stem more closely. The leaves are less numerous and wider, sometimes almost heart-shaped in appearance. My daughter brought back a drawing from her art class in which she had sketched and coloured a lily plant the teacher had brought to class. She had carefully reproduced the entire plant and I immediately said, "Oh, an Oriental!" She was thrilled that I was able to get that far in an identification from her drawing. I wasn't foolish enough to hazard a guess as to the cultivar...

Orientals tend to come in shades of white, yellow and pink, mostly pastels, although Stargazer and Starfighter are famous for their deep pink blooms. You will often find them rimmed with a different colour, or combining two or three colours in various ways, whereas the Asiatics usually stick to a single colour, with some notable exceptions like Lollypop.

Foliage on Oriental liliesOrientals are also "fragrant," although opinions are divided as to whether this is a good thing or not. To my nose, they stink. But seeing as I'm hopelessly addicted to lilies, I put up with the smell. Judging by the complaints from my offspring the last time I got a bouquet with Casablancas in it, our family is united on this topic.

This is not just a question of taste either; apparently it's genetic. To some people the fragrance is truly enchanting, to others it is perceived as unpleasant at best.

Orientals come into play about when the Asiatics have completely given up, flowering in late July and into August. So it's a good idea to have some of both, if you like a long season of lilies. Better yet, throw in some trumpet lilies and Easter lilies to extend it even further.

Now if somebody would just double my yard space, I'd put in martagons and prairie lilies and Orienpets and LA hybrids and...

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Kasmira said...

When it comes to orientals, I'm in the "enchanted" class.
I bought some lilies at Home Depot this spring and was SO annoyed that they weren't labeled as Oriental or Asiatic. (I wanted the "stinky" ones.) I guessed by looking at the flower color pictured and the angle of the blooms.
Would you agree that Asiatics are usually upward facing whereas Orientals (and Orienpets) face sideways or even slightly down?
Another way to extend the Asiatic bloom season is to plant fresh bulbs in the spring. They seem to get going a little later than the established bulbs. Of course, if you used that as a consistent strategy, you'd accumlate a lot of bulbs!

Janet said...

Kasmira, I wish I shared your genes as far as it comes to lilies! You're right about the Orientals not facing up; it took quite a while of patient breeding for the horticultural industry to come up with upward-facing Orientals.

I could live with your strategy for Asiatics, if I had the room! It doesn't help that they do spread faster on top of it. I do know people who will start them in pots early to get a jump on the season.

charlotte said...

Very informative Janet. I will have to go around sniffin' lilies pretty soon to see where I am on the 'fragrance' issue!

Deborah said...

While trying to identify some of my lily plants I have stumbled upon your posts. I am totally in love with all my Oriental Lilies! Yes, their bloom does face down or out where Asiatics face upwards. These too are beautiful in my garden but when my Stargazer, Aruba or Casa Blancas bloom I have vases full in every possible room!I adore the scent. Can anyone recommend a really good website (I have visited 17 this morning!) or even a good book with which to try to identify those in my yard where the markers have faded along with my memory? Thanks! Deborah

Janet said...

Deborah, I'm afraid I can't help you much there. I would suggest you try sites of lily specialists, like The Lily Nook. Or join the Garden Web forums and hang out in the lily forum. Good luck with your search.