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Understanding the ancient age of lilies and irises
A purple iris brings a touch of color to any garden.

Adorning the landscape with vivid yellows, purples, reds and oranges, flowering lily and iris plants are beginning to pop up everywhere as spring emerges. Even the beautiful hues of the lilies’ white blooms make a dramatic show and grace our homes with their subtle charm.

The history of lilies and irises and how they came to this area is an interesting story. As far back as I can remember, traditional southern lilies and irises have graced the yards of many of our Southern home gardens.


Considered sacred in Greek and Roman mythology, the lily was found in Minoan paintings on the Greek island of Crete dating back to 1580 B.C. The lily flower also is mentioned in the Bible in numerous places. It symbolized purity, was associated with the Virgin Mary and represented death and martyrdom.

European explorers, mostly British, brought many species of lilies to the United States during the Victorian Era. In search of exotic plants, many of the species were found in China and native to the northern hemisphere of Asia.

Lilies became hybridized in the United States by a fellow from Holland in the 1930s. It is primarily responsible for all of the dependable varieties so popular on the market today. By 1945, close to 1,200 lily growers were in business in the United States.

Various lilies bloom well in Northeast Georgia. Spring lilies include rain lily and lily of the valley. Summer lilies include African lily, magic lily, calla lily, blackberry lily and Asiatic lily. A fall flowering lily is the red spider lily.


In contrast, the Iris flower originated in Middle Eastern origins close to Egypt and Syria somewhere around 1479 B.C. “Iris” means “rainbow” in Greek which is a fitting name for all of its many colors.

In the ancient world, the iris roots, or rhizomes, were used for medicinal and fragrance purposes.

The iris also is an emblem of Florence, Italy. French kings adopted the “fleur-de-lis” as their emblems on their coat of arms. Today, the fleur-de-lis is the emblem of New Orleans and the Tennessee state flower.

Often categorized for its hardiness, time of bloom and size, the rhizome-produced flower also has many species with different colors and shapes. And the bulb is extremely diverse with many species and hybrids.

Some common irises for the area are bearded iris, Siberian iris, Japanese iris and Danford iris. Bearded, Siberian and Japanese irises are generally a taller plant and bloom from mid-spring to early summer. The Danford irises are small plants and bloom very early in the year.

Planting site, time

Before planting a lily or iris, make sure the site is adequate as for all flowering plants.

Most bulbs prefer part shade to full sunshine. The majority of bulbous plants prefer a moist, well-drained area, too.

Remember to plant spring flowering bulbs from October through December. Summer flowering bulbs are planted in spring after the danger of frost has passed.

Planting depth is very important. Plant two to three times the greatest diameter for bulbs 2 inches or more in diameter and three to four times the greatest diameter for smaller bulbs. Space them at least 2 inches apart.

Mulch your planting areas for cold and wind to minimize winter injury.

Lilies and irises can be grown in shrub borders, natural settings and mass displays. They provide a certain element virtually unrivaled by other flowering plants. Add a few to your garden.

Wanda Cannon serves as Master Gardener coordinator and horticulture assistant for the UGA Cooperative Extension office in Hall County. Contact her at 770-535-8293 or Her column appears biweekly and on

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