Summer ‘lily parade’ in bloom at Glen Ellen’s Quarryhill Botanical Garden

A summer long lily parade, May through September, is underway right now in Quarryhill’s 25-acre botanical garden located near Glen Ellen off Highway 12 in the Valley of the Moon. The show began in late May, with lily lovers from far and near arriving to catch Lilium leucanthum’s towering 4- to 7-foot stems topped with the magnificent white trumpet that herald the garden’s coming lily parade.

“Lilies have been cultivated for thousands of years,” said Bill McNamara, Quarryhill director. “They’ve been grown for food, used in medicine and remain a religious symbol in many parts of the world. Mostly, though, they are sought after for their beauty.”

Most hail from temperate Asia, where they grow rooted in rocky, fast-draining soil with their heads in full sun, conditions replicated on Quarryhill’s hillsides and deep gullies that once supplied crushed rock for building roads.

Quarryhill contains one of the largest North American collections of Asian plants found in the wild. More than 10,000 plants from almost 2,000 species flourish in informal abandon, recreating as much as possible an Asian forest, as was the wish of Jane Davenport Jansen who died in 2000 and left an endowment to run Quarryhill, a nonprofit organization with a full-time staff of 12, including five gardeners.

The garden began in 1987 under Jansen’s guidance. The steep, rocky, thicket-covered hillside was gradually transformed into a trove of plants from China, India, Japan and Nepal. Annual foraging expeditions in search of seeds conducted with other botanic gardens, including the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew outside London added species to the collection.

“No responsible collector disturbs natural habitat by digging and removing plants in the wild,” said McNamara, who has participated in many treks, including the first as a volunteer in 1987. “The majority of our lily seeds were sourced in China, where almost a third of the world’s total of more than 90 lily species occur.”

Following the late May arrival of the first-to-bloom Lilium leucanthum, here is what lily fanciers can expect to see in the coming months at Quarryhill.

Deep orange Lilium davidii ushers in June with as many as 23 flowers bursting forth on its 3- to 4-foot stems. “It was named after a French missionary, Pere Armand David, the first Westerner to come across it,” McNamara said, adding there is not a lily or any plant in the garden without a story to tell. Many of these stories are captured in McNamara’s article, “The Lilies of Quarryhill,” published by London’s Royal Horticultural Society in 2003-2004.

June enjoys a flurry of blooms, among them the highly fragrant Lilium regale, considered by early 20th century plant collector E. H. Wilson as one of his most prized finds, even though the broken leg he suffered in its pursuit left him with what he called his “lily limp.” Now, too, is when sturdy Lilium brownii, cultivated for centuries in China for its edible and medically useful bulbs, puts its rosy-purple trumpets with white interiors on view.

In late June, Lilium duchartrei reveals its dainty Turk’s caps - so named for their curled shape resembling a pasha’s headdress - produced from seed gathered on a Quarryhill’s 1988 expedition into China. “We spotted it in northern Sichuan at 8,000 feet elevation growing in an open valley of dense shrubs and scattered pines,” McNamara said.

Blooming about the same time, Lilium sargentiae is distinguished by stems crowded with bulbils and its white, highly perfumed trumpets with yellow throats.

Audacious Lilium auratum ushers in July. A popular Japanese lily, its name translates to “ornamented with gold,” reflecting the embellishments of its white, 10-inch flowers.

In contrast, the delicate, light yellow, lantern-shaped blooms of Lilium lophophorum barely manage a nod above surrounding foliage.

Although Lilium lophophorum in its native habitat thrives in elevations as high as 15,000 feet, it has adapted well to Quarryhill’s much lower elevation.

August introduces Lilium henryi, which may have as many as 15 Turk’s-cap blossoms on its 3- to 4-foot stems. Then comes a sea of the orange tiger lily, Lilium leichtlinii var. maximowiczii, with 6-foot stems topped with spotted turk’s-cap flowers. Tempering all that mid-August orange are the stunning pink flowers of Lilium speciosum. It’s name means “splendid, brilliant.”

Finally, Lilium formosanum reluctantly announces the end of Quarryhill’s lily show, its 6-inch white trumpets gracing stems more than 8-feet tall. So reluctant is Lilium formosanum to step off stage that it has been known to make curtain calls into December.

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