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What is a Madonna Lily?

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  • Written By: J.M. Densing
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 27 August 2016
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The Madonna lily is a type of large, fragrant, white lily, scientific name Lilium candidum, that grows from a bulb. It is found growing in the wild in Asia and in Europe near the Mediterranean, and it is one of the oldest known lilies in cultivation. It has some cultural significance, often considered to be a symbol of purity. The Madonna lily is currently in cultivation all over the world, both for gardens and as a cut flower, and is fairly easy to grow under the right conditions.

At its full height, the Madonna lily can grow as tall as 6 feet (1.8 m), although the average height ranges between 3 to 5 feet (1 to 1.5 m). In the winter, it has a low rosette of leaves, but in the spring a sturdy, thick, green stem with bright green leaves emerges. The leaves are smooth and spear shaped, appearing along the length of the stem in pairs, with one leaf on each side. Each stem produces between eight and 15 sizable, white blossoms with a trumpet shape that flares out into distinct curled back petals, and with prominent yellow stamens in the center. The flowers typically bloom in May, June, and July.

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The original native area of the Madonna lily is southwestern Asia, and it has naturalized to the Mediterranean Sea area as well. When growing in the wild, it tends to thrive in grassy meadows and near the edges of wooded areas in a warm climate with mild winters. It grows as a perennial bulb, dying back in the winter with renewed growth in the spring. It usually grows well in rich well drained soil, with the flower heads in the sun.

The Madonna lily has been in cultivation for over 3000 years since Minoan times before the birth of Christ. Images of it have been found on coins and ornamental items excavated from the ancient world. It is considered to be a symbol of purity by the Roman Catholic Church, and the Virgin Mary was often shown holding it in medieval artwork. It is also believed by some to be mentioned in the Bible in Solomon's Song of Songs.

Under the right conditions, the Madonna lily is fairly easy to grow. The bulbs should be planted just beneath the soil surface in the late summer or early fall, and a layer of mulch is useful protection from the winter cold. A location with partial sun is best, with indirect sun or shade during the hottest part of the day. The soil should be kept moist, and lime and light fertilizer can be applied to encourage robust growth. The Madonna lily is popular as a cut flower, particularly in floral arrangements for churches, and in the garden it makes an excellent ornamental plant.

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