Tall and stately, with smallish flowers that face demurely downwards, martagon lilies are a visual treat in the early summer garden. A patch of martagons in bloom is not only a treat for gardeners, but is also an attractant for bees and butterflies.

'Martagon' is the term used to describe lilies whose parentage is derived from members of the five species which make up the Martagon subgroup of lilies. Martagons are long-lived lilies which increase gradually, so a clump may remain in the same spot for many years. They generally grow to about 4-6 feet in height under ideal conditions. Martagons have whorls or 'wheels' of leaves which occur at intervals along the stem.

Most of the commercially available martagon cultivars have flowers that are turkscap or downfacing in form, though there are a few, mostly with L.tsingtauense heritage, that tend towards outfacing. A martagon inflorescence can often carry 30 or more florets. Martagons are among the first lilies to bloom, usually starting in mid to late June and blooming into July.

martagons in the gardenGrowing and Caring for Martagons

Martagons are well suited to partial shade whether it be the dappled shade created by trees, or shaded areas beside buildings. They will also grow very well in full sun.

Like most lilies, martagons require good drainage. Plant on a slope or in slightly raised beds with added drainage.

Planting depth should be 2-3 times the height of the bulb - a bulb that is 2" in height should be planted with 4" of soil covering it in heavier soils and with 6" of soil covering it in lighter (sandy) soils. It is usually okay to plant a bit shallower than this; lilies have contractile roots and will pull themselves down in the soil to where they want to be. Soil should be worked to a depth of 10-12 inches.

Peat moss is a good soil additive to use when planting lilies for both light and heavy soils, aiding with aeration of heavy soils and water retention in lighter soils.

At planting time, fertilize with bone meal, 2-14-0, or any good bulb fertilizer using about a tablespoon worked into the soil below each bulb, but not in contact with the bulb or roots. Water well after planting. Once established, Martagon lilies are reasonably drought tolerant. More harm can be done from over watering than from allowing the plants to be a bit on the dry side. When watering, avoid wetting the foliage, as the fungal disease Botrytis can affect foliage that remains wet from overhead watering or from heavy dews or rainy periods. Planting in an area with good air circulation helps to keep the foliage dry.

Covering the area where bulbs are planted with a layer of mulch such as small bark chips or compost helps to moderate soil temperatures and retain moisture. Well-rotted manure may be used as a top dressing with lilies but should not come in contact with the bulb.

Mark the spot where you plant martagons, as they will often show little or no growth above the ground for the first year after transplanting. Sometimes growth will appear and then turn yellow/brown and collapse. However, even though you may not see growth above the ground, or the growth ends abruptly the first year, the root system will be expanding and adjusting to the soil conditions and the following year will bring a good sized blooming stem.

Species within the Martagon Subgroup

species martagon stem close-up * All three (3) photos of l. martagon courtesy of Darm Crook, Hay River, NWT. Darm grows an extensive list of species lilies and many of his own hybrids in his Zone 1 garden.

There are five species that are normally identified as being part of the martagon subgroup of true lilies. These are: L. martagon, L. tsingtauense, L. hansonii, L. distichum and L. medeoloides.

another variation in colour of l. martagonOf these five species, L. martagon has by far the largest natural distribution. It can be found in the wild in a sweeping band that runs from central Portugal, through Spain and Europe and across thousands of miles of Russia to east of Lake Baikal in Siberia.

Throughout this vast range, there is a tremendous diversity of flower color, from the purest white of L. martagon var. album through many shades of pink, rose, lilac and lavender, to the deep burgundy of L. martagon var. cattaniae. As one might expect from a species with such a wide distribution, there are many other traits that show wide variation.

martagon species lily variationWithin a stand of L. martagon some plants may have unspotted flowers, some may have flowers lightly spotted, and others may be very heavily spotted. Natural variations occur in height, number of buds, and stem color. Fuzzy or hairy buds, stems and/or leaves can also occur, as in the varieties L. martagon var. hirsutim and L. martagon var. pilosisculum.

L. martagon and its varieties have been used extensively in hybridizing to give us many of the martagon cultivars that we enjoy in our gardens today. Early hybridizing work around 1890 by C. Baden Powell resulted in L. x dalhansonii, a cross between L. martagon var. cattaniae x L. hansonii. This lily has stood the test of time and is still commercially available more than 100 years later.

Some of the color variations seen in L. martagon, from white to very dark red (shown below). Both the white and dark red are seedlings. The dark red flower is a seedling with L. martagon var. cattaniae in its background.

white l. martagon seedling   l. martagon seedling  

The photo of white martagon seedling above, © Darm Crook.

L. hansoniired form of L. hansoniiL. hansonii is native to two small islands off the coast of Korea. At one time it had a larger natural range, but because it has been used as a food source, its range has diminished. The flower color is a rich golden yellow with variable amounts of spotting. According to Ed McRae, author of ‘Lilies:A Guide for Growers and Collectors’ a red form of L. hansonii also exists. L. hansonii has been used extensively in crosses with L. martagon. (photo on right © Darm Crook)

L. tsingtauense species lilyL. tsingtauense is native to areas of Korea and in an area of China which includes the city of Tsingtao, for which the lily is named. This striking lily is the only upfacing member of the martagon subgroup. The flowers are flat, and usually a brilliant orange, though individuals occur which have a more yellow-orange, or red-orange appearance. Spotting can vary from light to heavy, and the flowers often have a very shiny appearance. L. tsingtauense has been crossed with (L. martagon x L. hansonii) with the resulting seedlings often having flowers which face more outward than downward. Ed Robinson’s ‘Tsingense’, ‘Hantsing’ and ‘Sontsing’ are the results of such a cross.

L. medeoloides species liliumL. medeoloides is native to areas of Japan, the coast of Russia near Vladivostok and north along the Sea of Japan, Kamchatka Peninsula and Sakhalin Island. Flower color is a red-orange, and though the florets are downfacing, they are not strongly recurved. Spotting patterns vary from spotless to heavily spotted. This is a small species, growing to 1-2 feet. In the wild, it usually bears 2-3 flowers, but may bear up to 7 in cultivation. It has not been used much in hybridizing.

L. distichum species liliumL. distichum occurs in small areas of China, Korea and Siberia. This is another smallish species with stems reaching 1-3 feet in height. Flower color is usually a light red-orange with variable amounts of spotting. Florets face outwards and have the unusual feature of having larger spaces between the petals at the bottom of the floret than at the top. The florets are flattish, with the petal tips slightly recurved. This lily also has not been used much in hybridizing.

Some L. martagon - L.  hansonii crosses pictured below: at left is L. x dalhansonii (1890), photographed at Honeywood Heritage Nursery in 2012, middle is ‘Mrs. R.O Backhouse’ (1921), and right is ‘Rosalinda’, raised by Frank Skinner of Manitoba (pre 1978).

l. dalhansonii  Mrs. R.O. Backhouse martagon hybrid lily   Rosalind martagon lily hybrid

martagon seedlingSometimes the reverses of flowers can be just as beautiful as their faces. An example of this at left is one of Robert Erskine’s martagon seedlings. With a light yellow face and medium pink reverse, it creates an interesting pattern when the flowers open, actually more visually interesting to look at from the reverse than from the front.

Lilies: A Guide for Growers and Collectors by Ed McRae; Martagon Lilies by Eugene Fox

* unless otherwise noted, all photos © to the author, B. Adams-Eichendorf.

by B. Adams-Eichendorf (CPLS Newsletter June 2017)