The Giant Himalayan lily, Cardiocrinum giganteum, in full bloom beside a velvety Hydrangea aspera at the Bloedel Reserve gardens. I'm sorry for the poor photo quality; it was difficult to catch the lily in the bright sunlight...**
A real photographer never takes pictures in full sun, I read somewhere; he or she only works on over-cast days, during the tentative light of the early morning, or in the warm, soft glow of the evening. But I rather accept the less than ideal conditions than leave things undocumented... Like on last Saturday, when my dear, non-gardening friend Tina was on a brief visit from Berkeley. I just had to show her the Bloedel Reserve, one of the greatest gardens in North America, and despite the relentless high noon sun, I tried to catch a picture of the Giant Himalayan lily, Cardiocrinum giganteum, that was in full bloom, towering almost 10 feet above the soft, humus-scented ground of the gardens.*
I first met these huge, regal lilies in Marian's garden last year, and have been fascinated by them ever since. Originating from the lush and fertile mountains of the Yunnan province in China, they were discovered (to the eyes of the Western gardeners...) by Scottish plant explorer Robert Fortune in mid-19th century. Giant Himalayan lilies can be cultivated at least in Danish gardens, but I had never seen as far up as in Stockholm; I would be very interested to know if anyone there has grown them. They are quite expensive to buy as bulbs, but as they do not like transplanting, they are safer to grow from seed. Their journey from seed to a flowering plant takes five to seven years, so they are definitely not something for gardeners expecting instant effects; therefore, they remained a collector's plant even in climates well-suited for cultivating them.
A tuft of leathery, glossy leaves of young Himalayan lilies, not yet ready to flower.
During the first five to seven years, the lilies only make large tufts of glossy, leathery leaves. Then, when the bulb is mature, a tall shoot emerges from the centre carrying narrow, jade-green flower buds. In the middle of summer, the buds start to open one after another, from the bottom of the raceme and upwards, revealing the large, white bell-shaped flowers with a touch of burgundy in the throat. The flowers emit a heady fragrance during the night-time; only one lily plant is enough to scent a whole garden. After two weeks the Giant Himalayan lilies finish their flowering and if left in place, the dry, soaring stems will fill the air with sparkling, translucent seed. Exhausted by their magnificent performance, the mother bulbs die after flowering, leaving their offspring in the soil, ready to start the long cycle of life again.
Browsing through some gardening literature, I found some quite eccentric advice on how to plant Giant Himalayan lilies. Miss Gertrud Jekyll, for instance, advised on digging a hole of one cubic yard, filling it with compost and manure, and tossing in a rabbit before planting the bulbs. Major George Sheriff, a Scottish plant hunter and botanist who visited the Himalayas, went further and recommended digging a far larger hole, as according to him only a dead yak will do being a native to the same area as the Cardiocrinums.
I guess the rabbit would be the most realistic option for a home gardener like me, and even then I would be quite concerned about the local dogs getting wild about my gardening methods... But given how long time it takes for the lilies to flower, I won't be growing them any time soon as I don't know how long I will be tending my present garden; it would be too sad to leave them before they flowered. So I guess I just have to be content with admiring them at a distance.