Propagating Lilies

Lilies are much more diverse than other bulbs, some being adapted to sun, shade, acid or alkaline soils. As you might expect, they can be propagated by a number of methods, all of which are easy and reliable.

Unlike other lilies, the Madonna lily
(Lilium candidum) needs shallow
planting if it is to flower correctly.

Can I grow lilies in all types of soil?

No – some have specific requirements as to acidity/alkalinity. When propagating and potting on, therefore, choose a suitable potting mix. Use a soil-based type for those that tolerate alkaline soil, such as Lilium davidii and 
L. candidum, and an ericaceous one for acid-lovers, such as L. lancifolium and L. rubellum. The following lilies tolerate a range of soil types in the garden: L. amabile, L. martagon, 
L. pyrenaicum and L. regale.

How do I grow lilies from seed?

Seed is an excellent method for raising new lilies – from species only, though. Most produce seed in copious amounts and the new plants will be guaranteed virus free. Detach the seed capsules from the tips of the stems of the parent plants when they are fully dry and just beginning to split open, usually towards the end of summer. The seed is best sown fresh but can also be stored dry over winter in paper envelopes in a cool, dark place. Sow the stored seed the following spring. Fill small pots with seed potting mix (or ericaceous for acid-lovers) mixed with sharp sand or perlite. Water well and allow to drain. Surface-sow the seed, then top with a layer of horticultural grit or sand. Place the containers in a cold frame.

How long does it take the seed to germinate?

Most lily seed should germinate within a few weeks, but some species are slow and may not emerge until the second season after sowing. Leave pots undisturbed until you see signs that the seeds have germinated.

How do I deal with seedlings?

Lily seedlings produce a single upright leaf. Water and feed well while they are growing. The seedling will behave like a mature bulb – after a few months the leaf will die back below the potting mix surface (where a little bulb is forming). Keep the pots dry over winter. The following spring, knock the potting mix out of the pots and locate the bulblets. Pot these up in fresh potting mix, burying them to twice their depth. When new growth appears, start watering and feeding. Repeat this procedure annually until the bulbs reach flowering size – three to five years, when they can be planted out in their final positions.

Growing lilies from seed

1: Fill pots with seed potting 
mix mixed with sharp sand or horticultural grit. Sow the seed thinly on the potting mix surface.

Picture of Patio Planting

2: Spray with water to ensure good adhesion between the seed and the potting mix surface.

Garden Planning

3: Top the potting mix with a layer of horticultural grit. Place the pots in a cold frame outdoors.

What is scaling?

This is a simple and reliable method of increasing your lily stocks, and is suitable for both species and hybrids. The procedure involves removing scales from a bulb and encouraging them to produce bulblets. The best time to take scales is between late summer and spring.

How do I scale a lily bulb?

You can scale newly bought dormant bulbs, or dig up bulbs from the garden. For success, bulbs must be plump, firm and healthy. Snap off as many scales as necessary, as close to the base as possible. Either scale the whole bulb or remove a few outer scales, then replant the parent bulb.

The tiger lily readily produces small
bulbs that can be propagated.

What should I do with the scales?

Dust the scales with a fungicidal powder to prevent infection. Place them in a clear plastic bag half-filled with a mixture of peat or coir and perlite or vermiculite moistened with a little liquid fungicide. Inflate the bag, label and seal it, then shake it to distribute the scales within the potting mix. Place the bag in a warm, dark place such as an airing cupboard.

When will the new bulbs form?

Check the bag after six weeks. Within two to three months, a bulblet should appear at the base of each scale. Remove the scales from the bag, snap off the bulblets, then discard the withering scale. Pot up the bulblets, covering them to twice their own depth with potting mix. Keep potting them on in spring until they reach flowering size. After two to three years they can be planted in the garden.

What are bulbils?

The tiger lily (Lilium lancifolium) and its hybrids are well known for an interesting phenomenon – little bulbs appear on the stems in the leaf axils. You can snap these off in summer and pot them up, covering them to twice their depth with potting mix. Treat as for scales until ready to plant out.

What are bulblets?

Many lilies produce small bulbs on the portion of the stem below ground level. Dig up the lilies towards the end of summer and detach any bulblets. Pot them up individually, covering them to twice their depth with potting mix. Overwinter them in a cold frame or sheltered spot. Pot the bulblet on each spring. After two to three years they can be planted out.

Can I hybridize lilies?

Yes, the reproductive parts of lily flowers are prominent and accessible. It is easiest to do if the parent plants are in containers that you can bring indoors – this will prevent pollen from other plants blowing on to the receptors. Choose two lilies that are in flower at the same time. If you look at the open flower, you should easily be able to identify the central style (female) and the surrounding pollen-bearing anthers (male). Decide which is to be the seed parent and cut off the anthers, leaving the central style intact (this prevents self-pollination). Using a clean paintbrush, gather some pollen from the anthers of the other parent. Brush this on to the sticky surface of the stigma at the tip of the style. If the crossing is successful, once the flower fades, the ovary containing the seeds will begin to swell. Wait for the seed case to ripen and dry out, then sow the seed as normal.

Dealing with lily scales

1: Take a clean, dormant lily bulb and snap off some of the outer scales, as close to the base of the bulb as possible.

Picture of Patio Planting

2: Put some powdered fungicide in a plastic bag and place the scales in this. Give the bag a shake to coat the scales with fungicide.

Garden Planning

3: Half-fill another bag with a mix of peat substitute and perlite, lightly moistened. Place the scales in the bag, inflate it, then seal.