Among the stars of my June garden are lilies. They’re elegantly graceful, hardy to Zone 3, pest-free and grow in the shade. What more could you want?
. . . Perhaps a little respect.
These are martagon lilies: a wonderful plant that continues to remain relatively unknown despite having been cultivated for centuries. John Gerard, author of the famous Elizabethan “Herbal,” mentions them in 1596 in a list of the plants growing in his garden. In Uppsala, Sweden, martagons bloom under ancient trees in the garden of 18th century naturalist Carl Linnaeus, the man who devised the two-word system we still use for naming living things.
Martagons come up early in the garden — mine typically are a good two feet tall by Mother’s Day. Their glossy foliage rises in whorls along the sturdy stems and adds a distinctive shape to the garden while you wait for the flowers. One stem may carry dozens of downward facing “Turk’s Cap”-type flowers which come in a wide range of pinks, mauves, scarlet and wine reds as well as white, yellow and orange. They self-seed and, unlike many lilies that fade away after a few years, martagons will outlive the gardener who plants them — rather a nice thought.
The lagging popularity of martagons is likely due to the small size of their flowers. They simply do not have the kind of large showy blossoms that Trumpet and Aurelian and Oriental hybrids sport nor their intense perfume. Some people claim that martagons have an unpleasant scent but I’ve never particularly noticed it.
What I have noticed is that, though martagon flowers are significantly smaller, they have a subtle sophistication their more dramatic relatives lack. A slight breeze will set them dancing rather than falling over. And they have the advantage of fitting into the larger garden design, unlike the big, flashy hybrids which demand to be noticed to the detriment of the bigger picture.
Martagon seedpods are just as attractive as the flowers and I always leave mine in place for winter interest. So far, it does not seem to have sapped the plants of any vigor. They’re also good markers so I don’t go digging in the wrong spot when I’m adding bulbs in the fall or mucking around in the spring.
But perhaps the real reason martagons have not achieved the same degree of popularity is not so much because of the demure nature of their flowers but the cost of the bulbs. Look in any catalog that sells martagons and you’ll see the prices are anything but demur. However, if you keep in mind that martagons are long-lived, low maintenance plants then the prices seem a bit more reasonable.
But frankly, I think you just get hooked on martagons the way we gardeners get hooked on dozens of other plants and then the price sounds fine. I can’t imagine my garden without the red lacquered flowers of L. martagon “Claude Shride” (directly above) or “Mrs. R. O. Backhouse (all other photos),” which Old House Gardens describes as “soft amber-gold touched with pink and dotted with maroon.” Their description is perfect and so is Mrs. Backhouse, who is quickly outperforming Claude — the result of a bit more sun, better soil and less root competition.
Parts of this post appeared under my byline in a slightly different form in The Capital Times.