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The Fascinating Story of the Madonna Lily (Lilium candidum)


Ornamental gardening hasn’t always been high on the list of humankind’s priorities, but certain plants are so special that they’ve been grown and appreciated for thousands of years. The Madonna Lily (Lilium candidum) is amongst these. Given its long association with mankind, and the wide geographical area over which it has been cultivated, it’s hardly surprising that this is a plant of many names.

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Lilium candidum bulbs

Even if we just look at the English common names, we’ll come up with a long list including:

  • Madonna Lily
  • White Lily
  • French Lily
  • Annunciation Lily
  • St Joseph’s Lily
  • Bourbon Lily

Yes! All these names refer to the same plant, and if you were to talk to people who speak languages other than English, you’d probably find another half-dozen or so names coming from every nation that has appreciated their beauty.

Thank goodness for scientific botanical classification! When we talk about Lilium candidum, we can be sure that we’ve narrowed things down to just one plant species, and we can all be on the same page.

Lilium candidum: From the Ancient Greeks to Biblical Times and Beyond

The Madonna Lily may come from the Balkans and the Middle East, but it has become a plant of legend and mystery around the world.

In 1,550 BC, we already find traces of Lilium Candidum as a celebrated plant. It appears in the famous 'Prince of the Lilies' fresco which adorned the Minoan palace of Knossos.

Lilium candidum bulbs

Translators of the Bible, referring back to the original Hebrew, debate whether a certain ancient Hebrew word should be translated as 'lily' or 'rose'. The medieval philosopher Abraham ibn Ezra believed that 'lily' was correct, but other scholars differ.

However, we do know that the Roman Catholics have long seen the lily as a symbol of purity, and there are many medieval artworks and stained-glass windows depicting the Virgin Mary holding, or near, flowers that are inarguably those of Lilium candidum.

Tranquil though the blooms of the Madonna Lily may be, they have also been associated with war. Some of the troops serving Saladin, Emperor of Egypt and Syria, are said to have waged war beneath a banner featuring the lily.

The Knights Hospitaller also dined beneath a stone carving of a Madonna Lily, and some historians believe that this is how Lilium candidum became associated with the French Royal family.

After all, aristocratic young men invariably spent at least some time serving as knights, and the Holy Land was the place where young men served to gain the greatest prestige. Admittedly, the fleur-de-lis more closely resembles an Iris when viewed by the botanically-minded, but it is certainly meant to be a lily.

Still Valued to This Day

Some plants will never go out of fashion, and the Madonna Lily is among these. Our ancestors were awed by the beauty of the pristine white blooms, and we are thrilled when our statuesque lilies come into flower.

Lilium candidum bulbs

Now that you know a little of the fascinating history that lies behind your magnificent lilies, you may view them with new eyes. And perhaps the sweet scent will transport your imagination back through time to exotic places, the courts of royalty, the sanctity of historic churches or even the fierce battlegrounds where it was borne as a standard.

Would you like to grow Lilium candidum yourself? Start looking around for a sheltered spot where the wind won’t harm the tall flower stems. Remember: autumn is planting time!

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