Below is a photo taken in 1933, during the Great Depression. It is a field of Christmas lilies on a property at Pennant Hills, in New South Wales. The farm produced 100,000 cut flowers for the Australian florist trade that year.
Ladies could pick up a fragrant bouquet on pre-Christmas trips to the city.
To my disappointment it seems that Christmas lilies are no longer part of our Australian festive traditions. If there is a seasonal flower it would be scarlet poinsettia, or the gorgeous native Christmas bush, shown below.
The lilies were also a rural tradition, grown in cottage style, homestead gardens. For many of us their fragrance evokes Christmas as powerfully as the smell of pine needles, plum puddings and mince pies. My mother grew them in her Tasmanian garden and we all loved them.
But which is the ‘real’ Christmas lily? This was being debated In The Age newspaper, way back in 1951. Some insist it’s Lilium longifloram, which flowers closest to Christmas, but the consensus seems to be Lilium candidum, even though it blooms a few weeks earlier. Both are pure white, and perfumed. I have no idea which variety my mother grew, but I suspect they were L. candidum. appropriately known as The Madonna lily.
Lilium candidum (wikipedia).
The best way to tell the difference is that L. candidum is a semi evergreen, with a rosette of broad leaves produced after the flowering stems die down.
I’m not religious, but I do love this poem, linking the lilies to the Virgin Mary, and Galilee.
I used to watch, oh, long ago,
The slender Christmas lilies grow
In row on row, so straight and tall,
All burning white against the wall.
And as I saw their tender grace,
I dreamt that in another place
That as they grew, by that far sea,
Where Mary lived, is Galilee.
In Galilee, in Galilee,
Oh, that was never strange to see,
I smelled the hot and scented air
And saw the lilies everywhere.
by CAPEL BOAKE
This tender, beautiful WWI poem was published in December 1918
Last Christmas Eve the lilies swayed,
Late-blooming by the poppies’ flame.
And ‘neath the oleander’s shade,
Drunk with a million scents I came.
And dreaming of my own brave love,
Far off from all he held most dear,
I thought to pick a single bloom
That, loved by him, would bring him near;
And leaning out with starting tear,
One lily bloom I picked for me…
In token of his chivalry.
by MYRA MORRIS
Christmas lilies (photo courtesy of Rhonda Brown)
In autumn last year my friend Maureen generously sent me some bulbs from her garden in Victoria. Again, we are not sure of the variety, but at least I know they are fragrant ones, unlike those I purchased a few years ago.
My garden helper Editor Des was as delighted to see the bulbs as I was.
I planted them in various positions, to give me the best chance of success. Those in an open, sunnier spot have done the best so far.. They may not flower this year, but that’s OK.
MID DECEMBER – CHRISTMAS LILIES BUDDING!
Just look at those buds! How exciting.
ON LILY WATCH
Oh dear, seems they won’t quite make it after all I will have to decorate with festive crimson lilies that have no fragrance.
Never mind, next year I will put a warm blanket over my white ‘Maureen’ Christmas lilies, and get them off to an earlier start.