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How to Grow Madonna Lily, an Ancient Plant

Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.


I’m sure that you have heard of heirloom vegetables, but did you know that there are heirloom flowers also? I love growing the same flowers and vegetables that were grown hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

What are Madonna Lilies?

Madonna lilies (Lilium candidum) are true lilies and members of the lily family. Not all plants with the word “lily” in their names are lilies. Madonna lilies are native to the Balkans and the Middle East. There is evidence that they have been grown for at 3,000 years.

If you are a cat lover as I am, you might want to think twice about growing these fascinating plants if your cats spend time outside in your yard. Madonna lilies are toxic to cats and can kill them if they nibble on any parts of the plants. Even if your cat just brushes past the plants, if they are flowering, the pollen can fall on their coat. When your cat starts grooming themselves, they will ingest the pollen and die.

Fortunately for us, the lilies are not toxic to humans or other pets or animals. If you have dogs, you don’t need to worry if they chew on these plants.

In the ancient world, Madonna lilies were used medicinally. In Egypt, the bulbs were crushed and used in an ointment to treat burns and tumors. The Greeks and Romans used it to treat women’s diseases. The Romans also steeped the bulbs and used the resulting extract to soothe sore feet.

Madonna lilies are hardy in zones 5 – 9. Unlike other lilies, they grow a rosette of leaves that is 1 – 2 feet wide in the fall. The leaves survive through the winter. The following spring, a flower stalk grows from the rosette of leaves.

This lily blooms on stalks that can be 4- 6 feet tall with up to 12 flowers on each stalk. The flowers are the familiar trumpet shape. They are pure white with yellow throats. Each flower is 2 - 3 inches long and very fragrant.

When the flowers die, they are replaced by pods that contain seeds. If you allow the pods to mature, they will open and seeds will fall into your garden and start new lily plants which will bloom in a few years.

Each flower stalk can have up to 12 flowers.

Each flower stalk can have up to 12 flowers.

How to Grow Madonna Lilies

Madonna lilies are planted in the fall. The planting depth is critical. They should planted so that there is only 1 inch of soil on top of the bulbs. When planted too deeply they will not grow. Space your bulbs 6 – 12 inches apart.

These lilies can grow in full to partial sun. They prefer some shade in the middle of the day when the sun is strongest. Grow them in rich, well-draining soil that is neutral to slightly alkaline.

Water your bulbs well after planting. After that, water just enough to keep the soil moist but not soaking wet. Too much water will cause the roots to rot.

Add a layer of compost each spring when the plants bloom. No other fertilizer is required.

How to Divide Madonna Lilies

You should plan on dividing your lilies every 3 years. In the fall, using a garden fork, carefully dig up your bulbs. You will see small bulbs attached to each bulb. These are called offsets and will grow new plants. Gently break off the offsets from each mature bulb. Replant your original bulbs and the new offsets 6 – 12 inches apart with only 1 inch of soil covering them. Water well.

Madonna lilies grow a rosette of leaves in the fall which lasts through the winter.

Madonna lilies grow a rosette of leaves in the fall which lasts through the winter.

How to Grow Madonna Lilies From Seed

You can harvest seeds from your plants if you allow the seed pods to dry. Then you can scatter the seeds in your garden where you want new plants to grow. Do not cover the seed. It needs sunlight to germinate. Germination should occur in 2 – 4 weeks.

Or you can start your seeds indoors. Surface sow them in a container with pre-moistened soil. I always water my soil before planting seeds because I’ve found that if I plant seeds and then water, both the soil and the seeds will wash away out of the container.

Do not cover your seeds. They need sunlight to germinate. Place them in a sunny window. Germination should occur in 2 – 4 weeks. You can transplant your seedlings into your garden before the first frost or wait until spring to transplant them outdoors. Space your plants 6 - 12 inches apart.

© 2021 Caren White


Caren White (author) on February 15, 2021:

You're welcome! Thank you for reading and commenting.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on February 14, 2021:

An interesting and informative article about Madonna lilies, thank you for sharing.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 13, 2021:

Even though we no longer have cats, many of them roam in our neighborhood and sometimes visit our yard. For that reason, I would not wish to plant these pretty lilies since they are toxic to cats.