Lilies: Milk of the Gods

Lilies at the Blithewood Mansion Garden in New York
Lilies at the Blithewood Mansion Garden in New York

I was sitting outside on the back porch one day last week soaking up the summer sun rays when the flutter of a butterfly’s wing caught my eye. It drifted lazily in the breeze so near to me that I could reach out and touch it, which I tried to do and at which point it immediately veered away from me. The butterfly steered a new course in the direction of the garden, and after surveying his options, he made a beeline for the bright orange lilies. Even though we didn’t exactly get off to the best start, I did have to applaud my little winged friend for his excellent taste. Now, I have no idea whether the pollen of the lily is superior to that of your average garden flower, nor if it’s nectar is sweeter, but as far as pure aesthetics go, lilies do it for me hands down every time. They have always been one of my very favorite flowers, but as I sat in my chair and watched the butterfly flit around on its paper wings, I realized that for all my admiration, I really didn’t know anything about them. That garden in the back yard? Yeah, that’s my mother’s; she planted all those flowers herself. I, on the other hand, have never so much as held a garden spade, or whatever you call those things, in my life. True, in the past my mom has made me responsible for watering the flower plots on several occasions when she was out of town. But that really is the extent of my gardening prowess.

Anyway, I figured that if I am going to sit here and claim to like lilies so much, I should probably know a little something about them. And by “know” about them I mean google some interesting facts and historical tidbits. Any hands-on learning, a.k.a. actually planting/growing, of lilies is probably past my capacity and/or actual interest at this point in time. However, that is not to say that I will forever keep my hands clean, as both my grandmother and mother had the green thumb, and with any luck, that gift will have repeated another generation.


The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli c. 1486
The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli c. 1486 | Source

Oh, and speaking of generations, the lily has seen a lot of those. The first recorded documentation of a lily is found in a Sumerian tablet dating back 5,000 years that tells of a city in Persia surrounded by lily fields. The bulb of the lily is edible, and some scholars believe that these lilies were spread by nomads taking along the plant as food for their journeys. Even more fascinating than this hitchhiker theory are those myths told by the Greeks and Romans. The Greeks attributed the birth of the lily to the goddess Hera, the wife of Zeus. The legend tells that Zeus wished for his son Hercules, born to the mortal woman Alcemes, to further his divinity. To accomplish this, Zues drugged Hera and placed Hercules by her side so that he could nurse. But when Hara awoke, she was shocked and angry to find Hercules there, and she flung him from her, spilling some of her milk across the heavens to form the Milky Way. And from the milk that fell to the earth sprang lilies. Now if this visual is a little too graphic for your taste, you’ll probably find the Romans’ myth more appealing, if not more believable. Apparently, one day Venus, the Roman goddess of love, beauty, and fertility, rose up from the sea and saw a lily on the shore. She become so jealous of the lily’s beauty that she regarded it as a rival and caused a great pistil to spring from the lily’s center. I guess that means that my butterfly friend would have Venus to thank for his favorite food supply.

Easter lily basket
Easter lily basket | Source

Aside from the ever-entertaining Greek and Roman mythologies, lilies have been central to other religions as well, namely that of Christianity. Anyone familiar with the Bible, and even those who aren’t, may recognize this famous verse from the Sermon on the Mount passage in Mathew 6:28-29: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin: even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." Lilies have long been symbols of purity and chastity in the Christian faith, and are often associated with the Virgin Mary. The lily is also tied to the martyrdom of saints, symbolizing death, and is accordingly a popular flower for funerals. But Christians aren’t the only people to favor the lily as a token of death, and they certainly weren’t the first. The ancient Egyptians used lilies in their funeral wreaths, and there has even been a report of a mummy being entombed with the bulb of a lily. But perhaps the most well-known, modern usage of the lily’s symbolism is that of the Easter lily. This particular lily represents the resurrection of Christ, echoing the sentiments of purity and innocence as well as new beginnings. According to tradition, the Easter lily first sprang from the teardrops that fell to the ground from Eve’s face as she was banished from the Garden of Eden. Regardless of the origin of the original Easter lily, it is known that the Easter lily did not enjoy widespread popularity in America until 1919 when WWI soldier Louis Houghton brought home with him a suitcase full of hybrid lily bulbs. Houghton began gifting the bulbs to his friends and neighbors, and as their popularity grew, people began to become interested in the large-scale production of the flowers.


Bouquet of Peruvian lilies
Bouquet of Peruvian lilies | Source
Stargazer lily
Stargazer lily | Source

Today, lilies are still very popular both in the garden and as gifts. And if you happen to be a man who is planning on giving these flowers to your wife, girlfriend, mother, etc., you might want to pay attention here. If you are about to celebrate your second wedding anniversary, opt for lilies of the valley, which symbolize humility and devotion. Celebrating your 30th anniversary? The lily is a perfect flower for this milestone, symbolizing magnificence, devotion, and beauty. Or if you are still in the “friends zone,” go with the Peruvian lily, which symbolizes friendship (although, technically, this is not a true lily... but more on that later). If you want to express sympathy, try the white Stargazer lily, or for wealth and prosperity, go with the pink Stargazer lily. Orange lilies symbolize passion; yellow symbolizes gaiety; white, purity. And of course we all know what the Easter lily represents.

Let us now return to that summer afternoon in the garden. With our newfound knowledge we can re-examine those lilies and discover that they are, in fact, not lilies at all. Bit of an anti-climax, I know. They are actually day lilies, so my mother informs me, which are technically not true lilies. Apparently, the primary difference between true lilies and these imposter lilies (day-lilies, calla lilies, and water lilies to name a few) is that true lilies are grown from a bulb of overlapping scales. Naturally, there are other even more confusing reasons for this distinction, but that’s approaching the kind of boring information that I wanted to avoid. And honestly, who really cares anyway? Okay, but if you are one of those green thumb types that is actually concerned with the subtle differences between a true lily and a “fake” lily, there are plenty of other resources/people besides me where you can get that information from. There is an abundant supply of books on gardening in general, as well as on lilies more specifically. Your local nursery is sure to have knowledgeable staff who would be happy to put you to sleep with these and other fascinating anatomical traits of the lily. Also, there is a limitless amount of knowledge available on the Internet. A few sites that I found helpful in my research are TheGardenGeeks.com and the TheLilyGarden.com. The latter site is also great because it has a large variety of lilies available for purchase.

Whether you already have a thriving lily garden or have been inspired by these eloquent words to start one, or even to simply read about them like myself, I hope that you have taken away something about lilies from reading this page. Regardless of their origin - Hera’s milk or Eve’s tears - lilies are beautiful flowers rich in history and symbolism, and for that we should all get in the habit of pausing to appreciate their splendor.


The imposter daylilies in my garden.
The imposter daylilies in my garden.

Whether you already have a thriving lily garden or have been inspired by these eloquent words to start one, or even to simply read about them like myself, I hope that you have taken away something about lilies from reading this page. Regardless of their origin - Hera’s milk or Eve’s tears - lilies are beautiful flowers rich in history and symbolism, and for that we should all get in the habit of pausing to appreciate their splendor.


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Comments 3 comments

Deborah-Diane profile image

Deborah-Diane 5 years ago from Orange County, California

Gorgeous photos, and a fascinating article about lilies!


LULU SUE1987 profile image

LULU SUE1987 5 years ago

They are so beautiful, so very beautiful.


oae90 profile image

oae90 5 years ago Author

Thank you both!

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