There are about 100 Lilium species, from Europe, Asia and America, and innumerable garden hybrids in every shade of pink, red, orange, yellow and white. But it is the more modest Lilium martagon that appeals to our members and finds a place in our Top 30. There is some dispute – isn’t there always! – about the name. Some say it was named after the turban worn by the Turkish ruler, Sultan Mohammed 1, which was known as a martagon, hence, also, the common name of Turk’s cap lily, but William Stearn writes that the origin of martagon is obscure, possibly alchemical. However, when we see the name Turk’s cap we know exactly what the flower will look like.
Lilium martagon is native to a huge area from south west and central Europe to Mongolia, growing in open rocky woods, wood edges and mountain meadows in a range of colours from dark maroon to pinkish-purple and white, with darker spotting.
To describe it in the garden I can do no better than quote Val Bourne, “It is elegant, balanced and poised when flowering in June and July, and in autumn the upright seed heads provide a valuable silhouette.” The stems grow to about 1.2m bearing whorls of narrow leaves and with large racemes of the afore-mentioned Turk’s cap flowers. The dark maroon and whites forms are particularly sought after. We usually think of lilies as being perfumed but this one has a rather unpleasant smell. Lilium martagon was awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit in 2002.
When it comes to where they should be grown, I am confused. I’ve seen woodland and shade mentioned often but then Graham Stuart Thomas says that they are sun-lovers, though they will grow in part shade and are often recommended for it. Beth Chatto says that they seem to like full sun or part shade provided the soil is deep. Good soil, everyone agrees, is important, as is good drainage, so they should be planted on raised ground, with added grit on heavy soil. Obviously, many of our members have worked out exactly how to grow them and they have become an invaluable addition to their gardens. Hopefully, more of us will give this beautiful plant a try.