The lily, once in battle with the rose for the title of “queen of flowers”, has experienced many ups and downs in popularity throughout the years. In Shakespeare’s Henry VIII , Queen Katherine declares “Like the lily that once was mistress of the field and flourish’d / I’ll hang my head and perish”, and today lilies are often hanging their heads once more: many florists do not constantly have lilies available, as they have roses and tulips, and they are often mischaracterized as merely funereal flowers. “Rose” is not only a more popular given name than “Lily”, but it also a far more popular flower. Nevertheless, the lily has staunch defenders, from poets as distinguished as Emily Dickinson to figures as iconic as Oscar Wilde. Its history is rich and tied to the most important developments in Western botany, and its symbolic significance is multi-faceted. It is never a bad idea to pause and consider the lily.
The lily has been subject to many popular misunderstandings, often owing to the too widespread use of the name. Botany as a scientific subject has often been overshadowed by the everyday usages of flowers, resulting in confusion. For instance, biblical lilies were not the familiar white Easter lily, but probably one of several lilies native to the Middle East – yet they could easily be one of many other kinds of flowers. Incidentally, the “Easter lily”, one of the most famous kinds of lilies, is called that only for marketing purposes: it does not actually naturally bloom in spring, or have any ties to Easter. Additionally, the song of Solomon, which contains the famous line “I am the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valley”, does not refer to the plant known as the “lily of the valley”, which is not, in fact, actually a species of lily either. To complicate things further, the Hebrew phrase that was translated to the “rose of Sharon” in the King James translation means merely “flower of the field”, and may have referred to an actual lily!
The genus lilium, known as “true lilies” counts about 110 species, which is already a very significant amount, disregarding the untold amount of hybrids flourishing in gardens all over the world. Given the great number of species, there naturally are lilies with widely varying attributes, although most have a recognizable shape: six stamens and a spherical flower encasing it. Many smell strongly, while many others do not. The lilium amabile, somewhat ironically known as the “lovable” or “friendly” lily, is often said to be the worst smelling. Many others have had their odors turned into perfumes, a practice dating back to the Egyptians.
With the amount of species and hybrids available already confounding the picture, it becomes even more confusing that many plants which are not “true” lilies are referred to as lilies colloquially. Daylilies, which naturally last only about a day, are not from the genus lilium, nor are they any longer considered part of the liliacea family, but they often have lily-like flowers with six stamens. Calla lilies are, funnily enough, neither true lilies nor true callas, and retain the calla name only because the great Swedish botanist Linnaeus, who originated the modern system of naming plants, originally called them such. Water lilies have just about no ties to true lilies, which makes it particularly ironic that they have become the most famous kind of lily, owing largely to Monet’s obsession with them, and the far-reaching symbolical implications of lily ponds.
The mother of the lily family, lilium candidum, also known as the Madonna lily, may predate the ice age; it probably originated in the Balkans, and is native to Balkans and middle east. The poet Virgil gave it the name “candidum”, meaning pure or shining white, and this sense of purity has stuck around. Lilium candidum was widely used in ancient Rome, and the Romans spread it all throughout the empire. During the dark ages of Europe the gardening innovations of Rome were lost, including their knowledge of the lily. It is over the seas in China where the lily found its most effective advocates in those times – it didn’t hurt that over half of the 110 or so lily species originated in China. Islamic scholars also translated the major Greek and Roman texts on horticulture into Arabic and continued developing gardening techniques. Eventually the renaissance and printing press brought back the old wisdom on the art of gardening, and the lily found some footing again in the west.
The amount of known cultivated plant species in England was almost centupled in the years from 1500 to the mid-nineteenthnineteenth century – most flowers now familiar to us were not present in the western world before that time. In the sixteenth century, the Holy Roman Empire established diplomatic contact with the Ottoman Empire, and the Roman ambassador brought back many flowers he saw growing in Turkish gardens. This was a unique historical moment that brought many flowers to European gardens for the very first time, among them many species of lilies. The biggest influx of lilies, however, came from expeditions to East Asia in the nineteenth and twentieth century. On these expeditions, the crew would always take an illustrator with them: someone who could draw the plants in their native soil, before the seeds were taken abroad. These illustrations and prints of lilies, especially those drawn by the legendary botanical painter Pierre-Joseph Redouté, became massively popular. The lily’s popularity reached a peak with the discovery of the Japanse lilium auratum, often given nicknames referring to its golden glow or queen-like majesty, which was presented to the British public only in 1862. Its discovery caused a widespread lily mania. Eventually this led to poorly bred bulbs hastily brought over from Japan, resulting in a backlash against the whole genus of the lily.
W.H. Wilson, a British plan collector who introduced some 2000 species of plants to the West, eventually saved the lilies’ reputation, as he discovered the regal lily in southwest China in 1903 and with it initiated another period of widespread lily mania. In 1908 he came back to gather bulbs, but the journey was unsuccessful, as most bulbs rotted in the hold of his ship. When he returned two years later, his leg was crushed by a builder. He survived by setting his leg using the tripod of his camera as a splint, and successfully introduced the regal lily to the West after. For the rest of his life he walked with what he termed his “lily limp”. Regal lilies were an important step in bringing lilies to fame once more, because they grew relatively easily. Most wild lilies are particularly hard to tame and grow without issues, and this reduced the value of the lily as a garden plant. The Dutch horticulturalist Jan de Graaff was the first to truly “tame” the wild lily by introducing an easy-to-grow hybrid of the tiger lily. Ever since, the lily has remained a common garden plant.
While it took a long time for lilies to gain ground as a common flower in the West, they had been a symbolical force for years before in the arts. Because they are frequently white, lilies have been associated with the Virgin Mary and the immaculate conception since the 2nd century: a symbol of chastity and purity. According to one legend the madonna lily sprang from Eve’s tears as she was expunged from paradise, and was turned white when Mary touched a lily held by the archangel Gabriel. This story neatly represents the duality of the lily’s symbolism: it represents both sin and of purity.
The group of painters known as the pre-Raphaelites adopted the lily as a symbol of chastity and feminine beauty, in accordance with their vision of the ideal, pure woman as an innocent, otherworldly and devout creature. The painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti portrayed lilies in many of his religious paintings, such as “The Girlhood of Virgin Mary”, but the pre-Raphaelites also depicted lilies in sensual paintings that betrayed a titillating, sexual side to the lily that only came to full prominence later. The lilies’ connection with womanly ideals inevitably led to it becoming associated with sexuality too – purity leading to sin. The purity has been corrupted even in political spheres: the “Lily-white” movement in the Republican Party used the whiteness as a symbol of “purity” in serving racist interests. In fact, the association of the lily with the Virgin Mary may have been derived from a symbolic use that has nothing to do with purity at all. The lily is a tool of self-fertilization in Ovid’s tale of Juno in the Metamorphoses, in which Flora the goddess of flowers gives Juno a magical lily that impregnates her on touch. While sometimes dismissed as revisionist history, it is entirely feasible that this somewhat humorous misunderstanding is the basis of symbolism still common today.
The calla lily, which started out as a symbol of purity too, was at the end of the 19th century transformed into a symbol of sensuality and sexuality by fin-de-siècle artists, often in paintings with nude women, sometimes even suggesting lesbianism. This view of the calla lily found new footing in the 1920s. The woman in Salvator Dali’s painting The Great Masturbator, for instance, wears a calla lily – something rather different from Rossetti’s pious paintings. Many photographers and artists used the white calla lily in similar senses during that time. Even the physical form of the lily, and especially the calla lily, has something sexual, with stamen carrying the pollen high up in the center of the flower, and the flower petals curved inward as if to invite you to the ovaries within. Indeed, Linnaeus called the stamens the “six husbands” and the flower head the “bridal bed”. The scent of the lilies also add something sensual, especially when used in perfumes.
Lilith, the woman seen as a sexually seductive demon and Adam’s first wife in Jewish folklore, has brought some rather different symbolical implications for the lily as well. While the name Lilith may have been derived from the Etruscan goddess of Death, Lenith, and is from the Hebrew word “lilith” or “lilit”, meaning night monster, she is often associated with lilies, as in many productions of Goethe’s Faust, which popularized the myth. In this light, the lily becomes a sinister symbol of devious sexuality. Oscar Wilde loved lily symbolism too, and often carried one with him. When the public became fascinated by him, his signature lily became an obsession. Wilde’s eventual downfall, caused by imprisonment for homosexual offences, led to the lily also becoming a symbol of “licentious” love.
The duality of the lily was perfect for poet Emily Dickinson, whose garden was full of lilies. “Considering the lilies,” she wrote, “is the only Commandment I have ever obeyed.” The biblical line “Consider the lilies of the field” (Matthew 6:28) was about following the path of righteousness before worrying about what you eat or drink or wear, and prioritizing that above labor: hence the lilies “do not spin or toil”, as when laborers spin clothes. The verse was incorporated as the epigraph to Keats’ Ode to Indolence, and novelists like P.G. Wodehouse and Edith Wharton have used the phrase “the lilies of the field” to refer humorously to the idle rich, another original meaning derived from scripture.
Lilies’ use in funeral practices also dates to Christianity, although ironically, Christians originally banned the use of flowers in services for the dead because of its ties to Roman religious practices. Lilies were widely connected to death in works of major poets like Keats and Tennyson, which explains the continuing association. The daylily has also contributed, by calling to mind both the value of life and its inevitable end. Yet the reputation of the lily as only a funereal flower is hard to balance with the festive exterior of for instance the lilium lancifolium, one of the lilies often called a “tiger lily”, and the many perfumes of lilies on the market – unless people like going out of the house smelling like a funeral. Besides, lilies feature widely in idyllic scenes, as the many white variants stand out beautifully from the surrounding green pasture. The English essayist William Hazlitt once described how the perfect serenity of the lilies’ place in the green fields of his native village brought him peace and contentment:
“I look out of my window and see that a shower has just fallen: the fields look green after it, and a rosy cloud hangs over the brow of the hill; a lily expands its petals in the moisture, dressed in its lovely green and white; a shepherd-boy has just brought some pieces of turf with daisies and grass for his young mistress to make a bed for her skylark, not doomed to dip his wings in the dappled dawn–my cloudy thoughts draw off, the storm of angry politics has blown over … “
As for me, lilies have always been my favorite flower: words cannot express how their beauty, history, sensuality, and romance took hold on me, and how circumstances embellished them with their own symbolic meaning. New hope seems to pass over me every time my eye glides over them. There are days when laughter is punctuated by a tear, and oppressed by an inarticulate grief – but when dawns that day, that day, all I have to do is sigh, and consider the lily.