OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312



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Madonna Lily

Lily in early medieval sources

Description      Propagation      Cultivation        Harvest

Scientific name

Lilium candidum

The glowing white Madonna lily is the grand matriarch of ornamental flowers, and may have been the first flower to be cultivated in the garden.

Perhaps because of this, it's name has been consistent for millenia -- lilium, from Old English lilie, derived from the Latin lilia and cognate with Greek leirion, with both Latin and Greek names borrowed perhaps from the Coptic hlēli, lily.

Candidum - Latin candidum, from candere, "to shine, glow"

Common names, modern

Madonna lily

Common names, early

lelie, lely, lilius, lilye, lylie, lylye - Macer

bulbum, lilę, lilie - Anglo-Saxon Herbal

alaw, blodau Essylt [flower of Iseult], lili - Myddvai

lilium, lilie - Durham Glossary

lilie  - Leechbook, Lacnung

Lifespan Perennial
Hardiness Hardy in zones 5-9, but should be protect by mulch through the winter in zone 5
Size 40"-60" tall by 14" wide

The origins of the Madonna lily are uncertain; it has been found from very early times in lands surrounding the eastern Mediterranean, including the Balkans, Iran, and Syria, and may have come to western Europe in the holds of Phoenician trading ships.

Lilium candidum in bloomFlower

Pure white, glistening, fragrant flowers that shade to gold at the base, growing at right angles to the tall stem; each stem can have 5-20 flowers

lily rosetteFoliage

Narrow, lanceolate, slightly fuzzy leaves alternate to spiral up a stem that may reach 4-5' in height. After the plant blooms, the tall stem with its foliage dies back, leaving a basal rosette that will overwinter.


From seed Seed germinates easily
Germination temperature About 65 degrees
Germination time 2-4 weeks
Light Cover seed very lightly; water well to ensure good contact with soil.

Plant only 2-3 seeds to a pot, and grow on outside in a cold frame or sheltered location for two years. In the fall of the second year, when foliage has died back, plant bulbs where you want them to grow.

From bublet

Forms tiny bulbs around the stem just below the soil surface. Dig these in autumn and plant where you want them to grow.

Moisture Water regularly; be sure seedlings/bulblets are not in waterlogged soil.

Plant mature bulbs of the Lilium candidum in early fall, about 7" apart (4 bulbs per square foot). This lily does not root along its stem, so it is important to plant the bulb so that its upper tip or "nose" is covered by only 1" of soil. Lilies don't like to be relocated, so think carefully about where you want it to grow, and once planted, let it be. In its first year, you will see growth of the basal rosette before winter.



Prefers alkaline soil


Adequate moisture is important, but must have good drainage.


Full sun with afternoon shade, or light shade. Like clematis, these lilies prefer shade at the base and sun at the head; use low-growing groundcovers to provide this.

Natural habitat

Mountain slopes, well-drained soils


Short-lived perennial


Madonna lilies are susceptible to viruses such as tulip breaking virus and cucumber mosaic virus. Viruses, once introduced, are often spread by aphids. One way to avoid virus infection is to grow plants from seed.

These lilies are also susceptible to fungi such as botrytis and basal rot. To prevent fungal diseases in lilies:

  • Don’t get leaves and flowers wet when you water; instead, use a drip system to water at the base of the plant.

  • Maintain good air circulation around plants; don’t overcrowd.

  • Avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers.

  • Use only well-aged manures and composts; apply as top-dressing.

  • Mulch around plants to keep soil cool; warm soil is more likely to harbor fungi.

  • Don’t overwater, especially in hot, humid weather.

  • If your soil is neutral or acidic, add lime to increase soil pH.

  • Remove old foliage from lilies; if it’s healthy, compost it.

  • When you see a diseased plant or diseased foliage, promptly remove it and burn or otherwise dispose of it; never put diseased plant waste in the compost pile.


Rabbits, slugs, and snails both love lilies, as do deer. A good fence is the best protection against deer and rabbits. Snails and slugs can be diverted by sprinkling a narrow ring of fireplace ash or dolomitic lime around the base of the plants, and replenishing this after each rain.


Stake or otherwise provide support in windy locations.


Season to bloom/bear

Blooms in midsummer

Seed collection

Collect seed as soon as it is ripe in early fall.


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