Lilium and nomenclature

Jim McKenney
Fri, 09 Oct 2009 15:15:05 PDT
Ken and I share a love of lilies and their nomenclature, that's for sure.
Lilies as a group have a fascinating history thanks to their great beauty
and also thanks to certain circumstances in their history. The recent influx
of species from China is in many respects a repeat of events of a bit over a
century ago. The virtual closing of China to western collectors in the early
Twentieth Century, and the eventual disappearance of so many of the early
collections in gardens, makes for good food for thought. 

Of the early importations from China, I can think of only two which have
remained in gardens since the days of the early collections: Lilium henryi
and L. regale. At the other extreme, a century ago Lilium rosthornii was so
little known in the west that many doubted its existence and none of the
early lily books discuss it adequately or in a way which suggests contact
with the living plant.  It is now readily available, and although distinct
in some ways from Lilium henryi, it is also so obviously close to it that
discussions about its true status continue. 

Ken mentioned Lilium brownii. (I have spell check on and it very annoyingly
"corrected" that to brownie!) Its history teaches us a few things about
botanical nomenclature which do not exactly appear in the rules. The
originally introduced lily which was given the name Lilium brownii was a
clone, apparently sterile, which for long was a specialty of certain
European nurseries. It was widely regarded as one of the most exquisitely
beautiful lilies known (back then, that was true; but we have much better
lilies now). From the beginning there was speculation about its origins -
many older writers wondered if it might be a hybrid of Lilium formosanum and
one the wild, white flowered Chinese trumpet lilies. This original Lilium
brownii was evidently of garden origin, and as is often the case with plants
of garden origin, it did not correspond exactly to anything in the wild. 

Rather than upset the cart unnecessarily, modern botanists for the most part
treat the other white-flowered trumpet lilies of southern China as forms of
L. brownii; but we should not forget that it is a name based on a garden
plant without an exact congener in the wild. 

A similar example, an example of Ken's comments on plants collected in
gardens and then named as "species", is shown in the history of the lily
distributed in the early Twentieth Century as Lilium centifolium. The plants
which were given this name originated as a seed collection from garden
plants in an area of China where nothing like it grew wild in the immediate
vicinity. Those associated with its introduction vociferously defended its
status as a species or at least a distinct varietas, although as other cooks
began to stir the soup problems with this view arose. For one thing, one
American lily expert reported that he was able to raise Lilium centifolium
from seed of L. leucanthum. This Lilium centifolium should have been treated
as a strain of horticultural origin (as were, for instance, the wonderful
trumpet lily strains raised by Jan deGraaff later in the century), but once
a name gets into the literature it can be a difficult to suppress as the
worst weeds in the garden. There are still those who cling to this name

I have friends who care not a whit for the correct names of their plants. I
find that attitude exasperating, but I have to admit that I occasionally
envy their clueless joy in their plants. 


-----Original Message-----
From: []
On Behalf Of Kenneth Hixson
Sent: Friday, October 09, 2009 5:09 PM
To: Pacific Bulb Society
Subject: Re: [pbs] Lilium and nomenclature

Jim McKenney wrote:
> David Trout wrote: "I received some L. leichtlinii maximowiczii in a bulb
> swap a couple of years ago, where there were called simply "red tiger". I
> quite enjoyed the detective work, (made exponentially easier by the
> internet), involved in figuring out what they are."
> David, I hope that if you ever decide to distribute those bulbs you will
> include their history with the bulbs.

	Without casting aspersions on anyone, I second this.  If you receive
catalogs offering Red Tiger, Yellow Tiger, and White Tiger lilies, rest
assured that the lilies being offered are in fact hybrids,
and probably have little or no ancestry from Lilium lancifolium.  The
name is familiar, and ordinary gardeners feel re-assured that the lilies
offered will grow well after planting.  Lilium regale suffers from
the same problem, and many of the "royal" lilies offered are lilies,
and have trumpet shaped flowers, but are not L. regale.

	On nomenclature, it has already been pointed out that plant
"explorers" (exploiters?) often have access to very limited populations
of plants, and atypical garden grown variants are imported as (or are
subsequently named as) true species.  Even if taken from wild
populations, explorers do not see the whole range of variations in most
species, and in some instances only select (seed or cuttings) that
appears to them to be the most attractive of those seen.
	Once plant material has been imported, it is often grown
by people who are not trying to represent the total range of variation,
but what to them appears to be the most attractive, and the (to them)
less attractive individuals become expensive compost.

	Lilium nepalense is an example.  The form often seen is a
green trumpet with a chocolate throat, very showy when exhibited.
In fact this is an uncommon variant, with the "typical" form being a
rather dingy yellowish-green trumpet with little or no chocolate throat.
The "typical" form may actually be easier to grow, but it makes less
of an impact when shown, so everyone wants the showy form.  When most
people do not know of anything but what appears on a show bench, or
images in magazines or books, they assume that L. nepalense should be
green and chocolate.  As more material becomes available from the wild,
it now appears that L. nepalense may even include species like L.
ochraceum or even possibly L. brownii, and L. brownii may intergrade
with some of the other Chinese trumpet lily species.  Until you know
the variations, you can't really know what "l. nepalense" actually is.

	It has been commented on that early plant explorers were
often paid in part by bonuses for each new species being introduced.
Botanists of the era were aware of that, and, since they were
receiving botanical specimens, were rather generous in naming any
variant as a new species.  Even today, some botanists seem to possess
a nationalistic feeling, and will name any variant from their country
as a new species.  While a local botanist is often a more knowledgeable
source than a botanist from say, Kew Gardens, it is wise to be aware
of nationalistic feelings, and regard nomenclature with a critical eye.
Nomenclature is after all an opinion, based on information available,
and if another botanist chooses to have a different opinion, or more
information (meaning more variations in plants) becomes available, the
same plant may have more than one name--and both are accurate, although
not accepted by every botanist or gardener.  Newer names are usually
based on more complete information, but not always.

	We, as gardeners, can not keep up with the latest botanical
opinions.  Even botanists are never completely up-to-date, as they
need to review new opinions before accepting them as accurate.
The happy fact is, we as gardeners do not need to be botanically
accurate. We need to be accurate--use a name that most people accept
and understand to describe a particular plant.  If there are still
questions--someone doesn't understand which plant you are trying to
discuss--they can be answered in more detail.  Gardeners are usually
more interested in growing and using plants than in trying to figure
out exactly where a particular plant fits in the great scheme of
things beloved of botanists.

	My sister-in-law calls mockoranges "Syringa" which was what
her mother was taught was accurate.  I know what plants she is talking
about, and she knows that every time she says "Syringa" I understand
that she means mockorange, and will tell her "Philadelphus".  This has
gone on for many years, and the world hasn't ended yet.


No virus found in this incoming message.
Checked by AVG - 
Version: 8.5.421 / Virus Database: 270.14.8/2425 - Release Date: 10/09/09

More information about the pbs mailing list