How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Asiatic Lilies
Want to know more about Asiatic lilies and how to care for them? Are you looking to inject the landscape with bold color and unusual foliage? In this article, certified master gardener Liz Jaros breaks down the genus and discusses everything you need to know about growing Asiatic lilies.
Exotic and colorful, with waxy, star-shaped blooms and spiral leaf arrangements, these perennial plants pepper the landscape in temperate parts of the globe from late spring to early summer. Surely, you’ve been dazzled by a few on your Saturday morning stroll through the neighborhood or perhaps treated to an eyeful in a mixed bouquet. We’re here to share essential tips so you can grow beautiful Asiatic lilies!
Known for being the earliest bloomers and the easiest to grow, these lilies are part of the Lilium genus in the Liliaceaum family and one of nine lily groups recognized by the North American Lily Society. They are often confused with daylily (genus Hemerocallis), Canna lily (genus Canna), and/or amaryllis (genus Hippeastrum) flowers because of their plant names and bloom characteristics. Still, Asiatic lilies are true members of the Lilium genus, while the others are not.
To help you grow them in your landscape, we’ve gathered the facts on these beautiful flowers and put them together in one place for easy reference. Read on for a look at this plant’s history, growth preferences, maintenance requirements, and a sampling of some varieties.
Asiatic Lily Overview
Plant Type Perennial bulb
Species Asiatic spp.
Native Area Europe, Asia
Exposure Full sun
Height 2-6 feet
Watering Requirements Even, regular
Pests & Diseases Beetles, aphids, rot, Botrytis
Soil Type Well-drained, pH 6-6.5
Hardiness Zone 3-9
Lilies in the Asiatic group are generally hardy in zones 3 through 9 and range in height from two to six feet. They are primarily odorless – a critical distinction between this group and members of the Oriental class – and their blooms face upward or outward, never downward. They have thick, fleshy stems and whorled leaves that are thin and lance-shaped.
The bulbs are large at 5 to 6 inches wide and white to pale pink with a scaly texture. Flowers in this group have six petals and prominent stamens, usually between 4 and 6 inches wide.
Though there are many stunning varieties of lily in all groups, the Asiatic lily group offers the broadest spectrum of colors in the genus, with blooms in shades of red, pink, orange, yellow, white, and purple. They require full sun and good drainage to thrive.
History & Cultivation
The lily is one of the oldest flowers known to man. Its origins are rooted in Europe and Asia, with references to its unique characteristics dating back to the 16th Century B.C. Paintings of the flower were found in the Egyptian pyramids, and it garnered frequent mention in Greek mythology. The lily had medicinal and ornamental appreciations and became associated with purity and marriage throughout the centuries.
Early attempts to cultivate and reproduce the lily flower were frustrating and mainly involved transplanting lilies from the wild into formal grounds and gardens. It wasn’t until Dutch botanist Jan de Graaf began experimenting with the genus in the early 1900s that the Asiatic group was created.
Once it became relatively easy to propagate and disseminate lily flowers en masse, the genus experienced a rapid rise in popularity. Today, there are hundreds of species and thousands of cultivars.
These lilies are relatively easy to plant and grow. Choose a location with plenty of sunshine and good drainage, and you’ll be off to a great start.
Whether you’re transplanting a lily you purchased from a garden center or starting one from a bulb or seeds, there are a few basic rules to remember. Here’s a rundown of the planting process for each of these options:
Nursery-grown or newly divided lily plants can be planted in spring or any time throughout the season, provided you give them some extra water and attention. Still, the ideal time to plant these perennials is fall.
This gives roots some time to establish at a point in their perennial cycle when they’re not working hard to produce new flowers. And cooler temperatures are typically easier on leaves and stems experiencing some transplant stress.
Shoot for a planting date at least six weeks before your zone’s average first frost date (refer to the National Weather Service’s Interactive Frost Map if you’re unsure what that date is for your area). Use a pitchfork or garden spade to loosen the soil in the bed where you plan to plant and adjust the soil content so it drains well and contains some organic material.
Asiatic lilies need a little breathing space and will spread by clump in future seasons. For best results, plan on leaving 12 inches or so between them. As they are fairly vertical and leggy, Asiatic lilies will look best in a cluster rather than a row and look the most natural in odd-numbered groups.
For nursery plants in gallon or quart-sized containers, dig a hole twice as wide but just deep enough that the plant’s crown will be an inch above soil level. This will discourage problems with root rot and fungus. Backfill with the dirt you’ve excavated from the hole and tamp down gently, again making sure water will drain down and away from stems.
Asiatic lilies are also sold in bulb form. They will be less expensive and easier to plant but may take a couple of seasons to establish. Like most perennials, the ideal planting time for lily bulbs is fall. This gives them a month or so to develop strong roots and save up some energy before they go dormant.
As a general rule, lily bulbs should be planted roughly three times as deep as tall. Asiatic bulbs are among the largest in the lily family and average about two inches tall, so plant them about six inches deep. Place bulbs with the pointed side up and their hairy root bases at the bottom of your hole. Cover loosely and wait!
Although the process is slightly less reliable and more time-consuming than installing bulbs or established plants, Asiatic lilies can also be grown from seed. While it is possible to plant the seeds you’ve collected from established plants at the end of the season, they will possess hybridized DNA and won’t produce a plant identical to the parent specimen.
For best results, purchase Asiatic lily seeds from a reputable seed company. Lily seeds can be started indoors under a grow light or directly sown in spring or fall.
Once in the ground, it may take a few years for them to establish and a few more to flower, so this technique requires patience and optimism. But it can be done! Here are the steps:
- If you plan to start seeds in a pot or tray, select a container about six inches wide and deep with adequate drainage holes.
- Line the bottom inch of your container with cork or stones and fill containers with a sterile potting mix.
- Use eight to ten seeds per six-inch pot, spacing them about an inch apart.
- Place them on top of the soil and cover lightly with more growing mix.
- Locate pots in a warm place out of direct light.
- Cover with a plastic wrap or dome.
- Mist or water lightly every day.
- Seeds should germinate within 14 days, and you should soon see green sprouts.
- Remove plastic coverings and begin gradually introducing your seedlings to direct light.
- In about four weeks, you can start taking them outside for a few hours daily to begin the hardening-off process.
- Transplant seedlings outside when all danger of frost has passed, spacing them 12 inches apart.
- Amend beds with organic material to achieve a pH balance of somewhere around 6.5
- Direct sow seeds about one inch below the surface and cover lightly with dirt.
- Assume many seeds will not produce viable shoots; plant more than you need.
- Planting seeds in a cluster (around an inch or so apart) makes monitoring and caring for them easier while they’re establishing.
- Water lightly every day, taking care not to overwater.
- After several sets of legitimate leaves have emerged, transplant your seedlings to an appropriate spacing of about 12 inches apart.
How to Grow
When their sun requirements and drainage needs are met, Asiatic lilies are surprisingly easy to grow. Although each bulb has a relatively short life expectancy of three to five years, Asiatic lilies will reproduce rapidly, so you’ll always have more. Here’s a closer look at their preferences and maintenance needs:
Asiatic lilies require full sun to flower fully and remain healthy, so you should plant them where they will receive six full hours of direct light each day. Ideally, their exposure occurs in the first half of the day rather than late in the afternoon, as they may wilt and experience stress when it’s extremely hot.
A southeastern location is preferable to a southwestern one unless they’ll be shaded by something during peak sun hours. Remember that the genus does not require six hours in a row of direct sunlight, just six in total. If you’re unsure whether a potential lily bed gets enough rays, make a garden map, chart the light throughout the day, and observe the location closely to track how much light it gets.
Established Asiatic lilies need about one inch of water per week during normal weather conditions. Use a rain gauge or a weather station to determine if this requirement has been met or if you need to provide supplemental irrigation. If so, always direct water at the roots rather than flowers and foliage. A soaker hose or watering wand can make irrigation easier to control.
Lilies should be allowed to dry out between waterings to discourage root rot and fungal disease. A layer of peat moss, pine straw, or hardwood mulch can help keep the soil moist while preventing puddles. Lilies grown in pots or raised beds should have adequate drainage holes that are free and clear.
Asiatic lilies grow best in soil with a crumbly texture and a neutral to slightly acidic soil pH. That means a value of somewhere between 6 and 6.5. They will not grow well in dense clay or in swampy low areas.
Work some compost into the mix to improve the quality and texture of your soil. For best results, perform your amendments in the fall for a spring planting or spring for a fall planting. This allows the microorganisms to work their magic and create a more nourishing, thoroughly aerated soil environment.
An early spring fertilizer application can help give your Asiatic lilies an excellent start to the season and encourage big, beautiful blooms. Choose a slow-release, balanced granular fertilizer with an NPK ratio of 10-10-10, giving them equal amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. This will feed their roots, foliage, and flower buds in the proper proportions.
To apply granular fertilizer, follow your package’s instructions and apply at the prescribed rate per foot. Using a garden fork or trowel, lightly scratch granules into the soil to prevent them from running off during irrigation or rain storms.
Just before blooming, you can give them something organic like a bone meal or bulb booster to give the flowers an extra jolt just before opening. But this step is optional and may have little impact on a well-fertilized lily. Do not overfertilize, as this may burn stem tissue or young buds. There is no benefit to fertilizing lilies in the fall. Wait until spring and repeat the process.
Generally speaking, Asiatic lilies are easy to grow and won’t demand too much of your attention. But you should perform a few maintenance tasks to keep them healthy and happy.
Lilies thrive when their roots are cool and dry, but their leaves and flowers require direct sun. The best way to meet these two opposing preferences is with a layer of insulating mulch.
Spread two to three inches of organic material like mixed hardwood, pine straw, hay, or dried leaves at your lilies’ feet, and they will be comfortable.
Asiatic lilies will only bloom once a season, so removing spent flowers will not encourage a new flush of blooms as it does for other flowering perennials. But it will keep things tidy and prevent flower petals from piling up around your lilies’ stems and inviting rot or mildew. It will also encourage your lilies to direct their nutrients toward bulbs (and next year’s flowers) rather than seed production.
To deadhead your Asiatic lilies, slide your fingers down the stem of a spent flower and make a clean cut just above the top set of leaves. Use a sterilized bypass pruner to make your cuts, and throw blooms in the compost heap rather than allowing them to lay on the soil. This will help discourage the spread of disease.
After they have finished blooming, Asiatic lilies will continue to photosynthesize and store energy for next year. While you might be tempted to cut them down as soon as the show is over, it’s important that you allow leaves and stems to remain in place until the end of the season.
Somewhere around the first frost, lilies will turn brown or yellow to indicate they are preparing for dormancy. This is the point at which you should make your cutbacks. Cut stems down to ground level using a clean garden tool and compost the foliage if it’s healthy.
Once your Asiatic lilies are established, they will reproduce naturally underground by creating offshoots from the mother bulb. This will be evident to you next season when two or three lily flowers are in a cluster that previously contained just one. They will also produce bulbils along their leaf axils and flower seeds that can be harvested. These are the three main ways a lily can be propagated.
When you notice a reduction in the quantity or quality of blooms or crowding of the stems, it’s time to divide your Asiatic lilies. You can expect to perform this maintenance task roughly every three or four years. Here are the steps:
- For best results, divide in the fall.
- Using a garden fork or shovel, carefully dig up your lily cluster and lay it out on a tarp.
- Look for narrow bulblets growing off the larger, rounder mother bulb.
- Using your hands or a sharp knife, twist or slice to separate the bulblets.
- Replant in a new location.
Asiatic lilies will also produce bulbils, which are dark brown and look like miniature bulbs or peppercorns. You’ll find them on the stems at the leaf axils, where they intersect. These bulbils can be plucked off your plants to create more lilies! Here’s how it’s done:
- Locate bulbils along the stems, just above or below the point where leaves grow outward.
- Use your fingers to pick them off the plant carefully.
- Fill a container or shallow trough with potting or seed-starting soil.
- Dig a trench that’s two to three inches deep.
- Insert bulbils with their flat sides (root hairs) at the bottom and pointed ends facing up.
- Water gently until sprouts have emerged.
- Transplant to a permanent location after two sets of leaves have formed.
Although seeds harvested from an Asiatic lily rarely produce an identical plant specimen, you can collect them from spent flowers and sow them directly into the ground if you feel like experimenting. Here’s how you do it:
- After your lily’s petals have all dropped, look for green, bulbous pods at the top of their stems.
- When they turn brown and crack open, break them open and spread out the seeds.
- Prepare a pot or a bed with a growing medium.
- Scatter seeds several inches apart and cover with a thin, light layer of soil.
- Water gently until sprouts emerge and dig up the most viable seedlings.
- Transplant to their final location at a distance of 12 inches apart.
Asiatic lilies are the most colorful group in the genus, featuring up-facing blooms with simple star-shaped petals and whorled leaves. They are mostly unscented and bloom in mid-summer. There are thousands of cultivars to choose from. Here are a few of our favorites:
Scientific Name: Lilium Asiatic ‘Rosella’s Dream’
Blooms on this lovely lily feature recurved, creamy yellow petals with a soft cherry blush at the edges. Throats are also cherry red and rimmed with brown freckles. Anthers are prominent and have more of a rusty red color.
‘Rosella’s Dream’ reaches two to three feet tall and blooms in mid-summer for up to four weeks. A multi-stemmed habit and scattered leaf arrangement make it more dimensional in a bed or vase than other Asiatic cultivars.
Scientific Name: Lilium Asiatic ‘Tiny Todd’
The flowers on this dwarf Asiatic lily are a sweet, lavender-pink hue with streaks of cream, and you can expect seven to nine of them per bulb. This is one of the few Asiatic lilies with a light scent, but it’s not strong enough to compete with other flowers in a bed or arrangement.
As a dwarf variety, ‘Tiny Todd’ will grow somewhere between one and two feet tall, which makes it a nice option for container planting. Its glossy, dark leaves provide a sharp contrast to its pale flowers.
Scientific Name: Lilium Asiatic ‘Pollyanna’
One of the tallest Asiatic lily cultivars, ‘Pollyanna’ features golden yellow petals with a peachy throat and brown freckles. This variety is showy and very decorative, reaching heights of four to five feet. It pairs well with other exotic-hued lilies or other bold perennials.
Plant ‘Pollyanna’ in a location protected from strong winds and heavy rain. Use stakes to keep it upright if needed.
Despite their reputation as low-maintenance perennials, Asiatic lilies have a few vulnerabilities and problem areas. They are toxic to cats and cause kidney failure, so you’ll want to keep Fifi away from them. They are also susceptible to damage and sometimes death from pests and disease. Here’s a quick rundown of their most common problems and a few suggestions for dealing with each.
Aphids and lily leaf beetles are the plant’s biggest insect foes. Aphids will leave a dark, sooty excrement on leaves, spreading disease and reducing the plant’s vigor. They are small (about 1/18th of an inch) and white to transparent in color with a brown splotch on their abdomen.
Lily leaf beetles have red bodies that are about ¼ inch long and black legs, heads, and antennae. They will typically feed on leaf undersides but can also damage flowers and stems.
Discourage these pests with manual removal techniques such as plant shaking, hand picking, or a hard blast from the hose. You can also reduce populations with neem-based insecticidal soaps or predatory insects such as wasps and ladybeetles.
Botrytis blight and root rot are the biggest disease threats your Asiatic lilies are likely to face. Botrytis eliptica is the fungal pathogen that causes botrytis blight. It produces tan or reddish-brown spots on leaves, which may have a purplish ring around the exterior. As these lesions coalesce, the blight gradually covers whole leaves and can spread to take over the whole plant.
The best weapon against Botrytis is a tidy flower bed, generous plant spacing, and well-timed applications of fungicide to destroy the fungal pathogen. More often than not, a light infection can be cured by cutting off infected material and applying a copper fungicide to the remaining plant tissue. Throw away any infected leaves, as the fungi can persist after composting.
Root rot is another fungal disease, but in this case, it’s all underground. Moisture-loving fungi attack the bulb or roots of your plant. Symptoms of this pathogen may first be apparent above ground in the form of yellowing leaves or wilting stems. Confirm this condition by checking if bulbs and roots below ground are slimy or discolored and pull apart easily.
If a bulb is rotting, there is no cure; remove and dispose of that bulb. Provide well-drained soil to ensure moisture does not pool around the base of your lilies. The bulbs need both moisture and air permeating the soil to survive. An excess of moisture creates ideal conditions for fungal colonization!
Frequently Asked Questions
Is there a reblooming variety of Asiatic lily?
No. Asiatic lilies will only bloom once per season.
What animals will eat Asiatic lily buds?
Though it’s not a common problem, chipmunks, mice, squirrels, and voles will sometimes nibble off flower buds. However, Asiatic lilies are poisonous to some species such as cats.
Are Asiatic lilies toxic to dogs?
Sort of. If ingested, they can cause gastrointestinal upset in dogs, but the symptoms are far less severe than in cats.
Plant Asiatic lilies in a bed or container with good drainage and a crumbly, organic soil content for the best possible start. Ensure they have plenty of sunshine and good airflow to discourage disease and pests. Divide them every few years to prevent crowding, and plant enough so that you can snip a few blooms for your kitchen vase. Asiatic lilies are easy to grow and a joy to have around!