By Audrey Stallsmith
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
Although scholars believe the above Bible verse actually refers to anemones, it could apply to the even more regal glory of lilies as well. But, despite their stunning beauty--or perhaps because of it-the statuesque flowers have what can only be called an equivocal reputation.
On the one hand they symbolize chastity, virtue, and hope. On the other, they also stand for fertility, female sexuality, and death. All the legends seem to agree, however, that motherhood comes in there somewhere!
The lily, according to one tradition, sprang from Eve's tears when she learned that she was pregnant. In Greek and Roman mythology, it originated with the mother's milk of either Hera or Juno and was called rosa junonis ("Juno's rose"). What may be the oldest of the lilies, candidum ("dazzling white"), is also known as the Madonna Lily. Associated with the Virgin Mary, it supposedly turned from yellow to its more snowy hue at her touch.
Another white, lilium longiflorum, only became popular during the mid-1800's. Originating in Japan, it was originally propagated in Bermuda. So Victorians knew it as the Beautiful Bermuda Easter Lily.
But, as Tovah Martin points out in Once Upon a Windowsill, "The 19th century indoor gardener would scarcely entertain the notion of purchasing a fully grown Easter Lily completely budded and ready to burst into bloom. Victorians began their plants from scratch-from the basic bulb." Today most of our Easter lilies are grown on the Pacific coast near the California-Oregon border.
Brides still wear or carry lilies, though it is unclear whether this habit originated as a reference to the brides' purity or as a hope for their fertility! If you dream of lilies during their season (summer), you can expect marriage and prosperity yourself. But, dream of them at any other time, and you are promised only frustrated hopes and death! Some stories held that unfortunates wrongfully executed often had white lilies spring up on their graves to proclaim their innocence.
The lily is one of those flowers that people either love or hate. Although most admit its beauty, some cannot stand its frequently heavy odor.
In her book, The Fragrant Path, Louise Beebe Wilder complains there is something "languorous and decadent" about a lily's scent. "There is in all of them," she writes, "despite the sweetness something brooding and sultry that is enervating and vaguely unwholesome." She also expresses the opinion that "the most artificial of roses seems to me to have a sweet naturalness about it, the wildest of lilies to appear stiff and sophisticated."
While I agree that some modern types are so large and luscious as to appear almost unreal, I adore lilies anyway-especially the Orientals. About the only thing I dislike about the flowers is their fragility.
The petals crack easily. And, if its stalk is accidentally broken off before it blooms, a bulbous lily is done for the year. It won't return until the following season. The pollen can also stain hands, clothes, and the lily petals themselves. But, still, some of us can't resist this flower's flashy, though brittle, good looks.
If you don't like the scent, you might want to try Asiatic lilies instead, since they have less of it. The Asiatics sport more open, upward-facing petals while, on the Orientals, the petals curl back from an often striped and freckled center. The Martagons are the smallest and most dangly of the clan--with the most tightly curled petals. Trumpet lilies look like their name, and a recent innovation in the lily world has been the crossing of them with the Orientals. The children of this marriage are known as Orienpets.
Daylilies would probably win the title of "most grown" and "most easy" of their family. They stand for "coquetry" in the Language of Flowers, probably due to the tantalizing briefness of their bloom. Orange tiger lilies also proclaim their hardiness by crowding our country roadsides in July. White lilies like candidum represent "purity" or "modesty," while yellow ones stand for "falsehood."
Lily bulbs were once ground and mixed with honey to make a soothing salve for burns or a cream to smooth wrinkles. A Persian lily oil known as sunsinion was a must-have cosmetic for ancient beauties. Many cultures have also eaten lily bulbs.
Spanish folklore held that the consuming of lily petals could restore humans who had been cursed to take the shape of beasts. Our white Easter lily certainly represents the sweet triumph of God's love over man's beastliness. That love, we are told, can also restore us to what we were meant to be.
Lilium alba image is from Herbarium Blackwellianum, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.