Tiger Lilies Are Easy-to-grow Garden Showstoppers

By: Carrie Tatro  | 

Tiger Lily
Columbia tiger lilies (Lilium columbianum) grow wild in a meadow in Olympic National Park in Washington. Wolfgang Kaehler/Getty Images

Imagine yourself wending through a meadow on a bright, breezy day in search of cheery wildflowers to carry home in one of the hundreds of baskets you've woven while waiting for COVID to end. Suddenly, like Alice in "Through the Looking Glass," you come upon a wildflower garden all aflutter with daisies, roses, violets and tiger lilies. Although you're there to pick the flowers, Alice spoke to them instead: "O Tiger-lily," said Alice, "I wish you could talk." To which the tiger lily, dancing in the breeze, replied, "We can talk, when there's anybody worth talking to."

It is absolutely true that some plants are beyond amazing in the ways that they "speak" to us: dazzling and lovely to behold, edible as a side dish or garnish, replete with healing properties, fragrant pollinator magnets, easy to cultivate and grow — when it comes to the tiger lily, you're getting the total package. And the cherry on top? These sweet-scented, deep apricot orange with a whisper-of-cinnamon beauties are one of the top long-lasting cut flowers in the world. So the flowers you bring home in your basket will remain vital in your vase for up to two weeks.

"Lilium lancifolium or tiger lily, is one of the most eye-catching shades of orange a garden can have," Amanda Bennett, VP of Horticulture and Collections at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, says in an email. "It's a calling card for butterflies and beneficial bees. The 'tiger' in the name refers to the black spots on each petal."

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How to Grow Tiger Lilies

Herbaceous perennials with up to 4-inch (10-centimeter)-long broad leaves, the tiger lily's large orange flower can grow up to 3 inches (8 centimeters) wide. Born on long, slender stems that can grow over 6 feet tall (nearly 2 meters), the flowers consist of six dark purple or black-spotted petals that curve back toward the plant.

Originally native to Asia, there are two types of tiger lilies: the oriental type and the common wildflower variety. The true tiger lily does not produce seeds and must be grown from bulbs that can be dug up and divided for propagation. Plant your bulbs 6 inches (15 centimeters) deep, 9 to 12 inches (23 to 30 centimeters) apart in the fall and wait for a mid-summer burst of blooms. The common wildflower variety with its tuberous roots, is also called "trench" or "ditch" lily because it thrives in ditches, on stream banks and along roadsides and railroad tracks in moist spaces with adequate drainage. Tiger lilies are true lilies that, thanks to their adaptability, grow throughout most of the United States, from Zones 3 to 9.

"Tiger lilies are easily grown in full sun in well drained to moist soil and require little care once established," says Bennett. "Flore Pleno is a beautiful double variety."

Tiger Lily
The Flore Pleno (Lilium lancifolium) tiger lily is a bright, showy variety sporting double flowers with up to 24-36 petals each.
Wikimedia Commons (CC By-SA 3.0)

"However, not all lilies are true lilies, which are in the family Lilium," Bennett notes. "Daylilies, calla lilies and water lilies are all in different families, and none are Lilium!"

Black box warning: No tiger lilies for the tribe of tiger! While much of the tiger lily can be eaten by humans, every part of this plant is poisonous to cats and it doesn't take much exposure to cause severe potential harm. Ingestion of as little as one or two leaves or petals, and even the water or pollen from a vase may result in vomiting, acute kidney failure and possibly death. If you think your meow has eaten any part of a tiger lily, take your pet and the culprit plant to a veterinarian right away.

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Culinary and Medical Uses

In Asian countries like China, Japan and Korea, tiger lilies are cultivated as a culinary delight. Often roasted like potatoes, the bulbs are said to have a flavor and texture resembling turnips or parsnips. Some Native Americans also harvested tiger lily bulbs and cooked them in earth ovens. The flowers can be eaten raw or cooked and used fresh or dried in soups, salads, rice dishes and even as cake decorations.

"Tiger lily has also been grown in Asia for the edible bulbs and is widely used in medicine. Add the edible petals to salads or eat the buds sautéed in butter," suggests Bennett.

Tiger Lily
A close-up of a tiger lily (Lilium lancifolium) bloom clearly shows the dark spots which give the flower its name. The long dangly parts are the reproductive structures of the lily.
Andrea Robinson/Getty Images

Medicinally speaking, the tiger lily bulb has long been known in medical folklore as an anti-inflammatory, a diuretic, an emmenagogue, or menstruation stimulator, an emollient and an expectorant. The bulbs are also used for the treatment of heart diseases, myopic astigmatism and to strengthen the eyelid muscles, to name just a few of its uses and benefits. Tiger lily soup or tea is said to help relieve stress and anxiety.

Show-stopping eye candy, tiger lilies are the perfect addition to a cottage garden. They can produce up to a dozen blossoms per plant in vibrant colors ranging from yellow to orange to red and even pink. For the sheer "wow" factor, it's best to plant them in separate beds all to themselves.

In "Through the Looking Glass," Alice asks the tiger lily if all the flowers can talk. "As well as you can," said the Tiger-lily. "And a great deal louder."

Spring and summer are on their way, gentle readers. All we cabin-weary humans have to do to soak the much-needed upcoming flower energy into our COVID-worn souls is put away our basket weaving, put on our masks, step outside and look around.

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