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Garden Guru: Time for the Turk’s Cap Lily

I’m not going to nag again about getting on and planting spring bulbs asap – I’m sure you’ve got your snowdrops, daffs and tulips covered – but have you thought of the fabulous  Lilium martagon ...

I’m not going to nag again about getting on and planting spring bulbs asap – I’m sure you’ve got your snowdrops, daffs and tulips covered – but have you thought of the fabulous  Lilium martagon, otherwise known as the Turk’s Cap Lily?


I love this delicate but stately beauty, with its perfectly formed little ‘hats’. Dan Pearson used them beautifully in his evocation of the Chatsworth Estate at the Chelsea Flower Show 2015. I grew them for the first time this summer and they were a joy. Look out for the full range of colours from pure white

to sulphur yellow
and maroon.

This won’t bloom until next June but it will thank you for popping it into the ground now – this weekend, before it gets too cold.

Do read Val Bourne’s always reliable wisdom for the Telegraph below.


Elegant and poised’ writes Val Bourne

Many lilies are too brash for the flower border and are far more successful in large containers, but the demure martagon lily is an exception. Its muted colours and swept-back petals blend seamlessly into the shade between shrubs and under deciduous trees. It is elegant, balanced and poised when flowering in June and July, and in autumn the upright seed heads provide a valuable silhouette.

Lilium martagon is found in a huge area across Southern Europe from the Iberian peninsula to the Balkans, and from Poland across the Caucasus to Siberia. It thrives in sub-alpine meadows, woods or scrubs up to 7,000ft above sea level and tolerates all soils, though it prefers neutral to alkaline conditions.

The species varies very little in shape and form but colours range from dark maroon to mauve and white, with different spotting on the petals, depending on where they’re growing.

This was one of the first lilies to be grown in British gardens: Gerard described it in 1596. The common name comes from the style of turban adopted by the Turkish ruler, Sultan Mohammed 1, which was known as a martagon and had a similarly pendulous shape. Hence, too, the alternative alias – Turk’s cap lily.

The dozen or so flowers on every stem have none of the heady lily fragrance; some even say they smell unpleasant, and sweet-smelling honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum, was often added to vases of them. But it is a survivor, colonising shady areas by self-seeding.

Many lilies fade away within four years but this one will outlive the gardener who plants it. Spetchley Park, Worcester (ring 01905 345224 for opening times), has thousands of them carpeting the quarter of a mile from the house to the lake. It’s thought that the owner’s great aunt, Ellen Willmott, started this magnificent colony in the 1880s.

Growing tips

Lilies, like all bulbous plants, need good drainage during winter, so plant on a natural slope and if your soil is heavy add grit. If you are starting a new colony buy bulbs from a reputable nursery. They are expensive and often dispatched in the spring, as lilies produce lots of roots after flowering and become dormant late in the year. Add plenty of humus to the soil when planting, cover with leaf mould and be patient, as they’re slow to get going. Don’t disturb the bulbs.

As with all lilies, be careful not to splash the stems, leaves and flowers when watering to avoid disease.

Lily beetles are the other problem. They attack bulbs so that the leaves drop off. The pupa, which look like bird droppings, also eat the lily foliage. If there are only a few insects, pick them off by hand and destroy them. Otherwise use Bio Provado Ultimate Bug Killer. The RHS produces a helpful leaflet, which is free to members.


Each flat seed is propelled through the air like a miniature discus or frisbee, as you’ll see on windy days in early winter. This is how the martagon lily spreads so successfully in both woodland and the garden. Either leave your plants to their own devices or collect the ripe seeds and sow them conventionally. They will take several months to germinate and at least five years to produce flowering bulbs. For faster results you can place the seeds in a bag of damp vermiculite, leaving them in a warm place to form small bulbils. These should flower within four years.

Good companions

Martagon lilies reach 4ft tall when happy. They’re best grown between deciduous shrubs as they tower over most woodlanders. Spring-flowering viburnums and winter-flowering witch hazels provide a mid-green leafy background to the summer flowers. The bronze leaves and metallic flower buds of Cotinus x coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ also blend well, as do the soft mauve haze of nepeta (right).

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