One of my favorite times of year has arrived again: oriental lily season. Other than perhaps German iris, there is really no other flower in the entire gardening palette that makes such a spectacular cut flower, and without exception, none more fragrant. I’ll never forget the first time I smelled these flowers indoors: I was touring the mansions in Newport, RI, and at one, Chateau Sur Mer, they had placed a large bouquet of lilies in the entry hall that filled the entire place with the richest of scents. Since then, I have never been without them in my garden, though since I first saw these lilies nearly twenty years ago, growing them has become far more difficult.
Enter the red lily beetle: imported from Europe in the 1980s, this nasty pest first appeared here in Boston, and quickly spread throughout the Northeast. Every part of the beetle life cycle munches the lily, and there are no natural predators here in North America. Left unchecked, the bugs will filigree the entire plant in mere days. (The larvae are particularly appealing: they coat themselves in their own feces.) Your only option is to pick or spray. I spray: a systemic, once a year just after the bulbs emerge in the spring, with a hand-held bottle sprayer to hit each individual stem, and only each individual stem, with pesticide. This system isn’t perfect, and the careful appication takes a while, but that way the spraying is contained precisely where it needs to be. Of course I would prefer not to spray, but to date there seems no other viable alternative, which brings up a very good question: how to garden organically when we are continually importing pests from other countries that lack any type of natural counterbalance in their new environment.
For the moment, I have no answer to that one, so for now, I think I’ll just enjoy my lilies.
Oriental lilies by the way, make excellent subjects for pots, and if you want a continual display of color and fragrance all summer long, you can do what I often do: buy your lilies in spring, then store them in the vegetable drawer, planting them every several weeks until early summer. Once the pots bloom, cut off the tops of the flower stalks, and let the stems die back. Transfer the bulbs into the garden in fall just after the first light frost.