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MARVELOUS MARTAGONS







I will preface my essay with a reminder that two broods of periodical cicadas (one a 13-year species, the other a 17-year species) will emerge in the Midwest as soon as the soil temp reaches 64 degrees at 6-8 inches depth and in concert with a soaking rain. This rare co-emergence last occurred when Thomas Jefferson was President! But to experience this wonder of nature you probably will need to be somewhere in Illinois since only small portions of extreme SW and NW Indiana have populations of one of these two broods (XIX and XIII). You may also want to revisit my Apr 2021 rant THEY'RE BACK! or get a copy of Gene Kritsky's book Periodical Cicadas: The Puzzle and the Plague (see publications on the Indiana Academy of Science website) or consider checking out the free Cicada Safari app Gene and Mount St. Joseph College (Cincinnati) developed to use crowdsourcing to help generate more accurate maps of the cicada populations. Moreover, if you are in the Chicago region in early June, Gene is giving a presentation at the Ryerson Conservation Area. He is a world-class entomologist and an AWESOME speaker! While the cicada emergence is mysterious, mesmerizing and harmless to animals (which includes humans, Kingdom Animalia), it will play hell with woody plants. My Indianapolis garden still shows the effects of the 2021 Brood X event. Checkout my cicada comments under 2021 (see ALMANAC).

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One of the disadvantages of being an older experienced gardener is that there are fewer novel plants to be encountered, but for those of us who remain curiously engaged there is always the possibility of encountering new hardy plants. These newbies are often discovered via interaction with other serious gardeners. I will here recount such an experience.


About a decade ago I met Chris Wilhoite (Soules Garden, Indianapolis). I showed up unannounced at his place and we became instant friends. Subsequently, we discovered that not only do we have different backgrounds we also have different likes. For example, he is fond of frilly polychromatic daylilies, cold pizza and soft bananas. NOT ME. He also likes and has considerable experience with Martagon lilies (AKA Turk's cap lilies). I had only passing exposure to Martagons before meeting Chris. That is, I had not grown them. Now that I am familiar with Martagons I cannot imagine having a garden without them in it! They are elegant and complement many other plants and, because they are vertical, will fit in gardens that already seem to be full. What I find especially interesting and exciting is that this discovery involved more than a single species and dozens of cultivars. Lucky me! Sometimes the discovery is a technique or method rather than a new species. Like any wise gardener, I gladly receive either or both.


Martagons are the lily with the largest native range -- Eurasian, from Portugal to Korea and Siberia. And when I say Martagons I am referring mostly to Lilium martagon but there are a handful of other closely related species. All are perennial and they are more shade tolerant than other true lilies (Lilium), in fact Martagons prefer dappled light. They can tolerate full sun but it must be a cool location and morning sun is the best. In prime locations the stems will be 4-6 feet tall, with flowers in the top one-half to one-third. Full sun (a less optimal siting) will produce shorter plants. Furthermore, Martagons like (no, demand) well-drained soil. I will occasionally apply supplemental water -- much like one should do for hostas et al. in dry summers to prevent leaf margin browning -- but then refrain from watering in fall as one should do with many bulb plants, especially tulips. Lastly, I can say that Martagons are one of the lowest maintenance plants in my garden but they have a substantial WOW factor.


Martagons have 3-4 stunning sets/layers of whorled leaves, as many as 20 per node. See pic above. At my Indianapolis garden the leaves emerge from their winter dormancy in late March. These early leaves are dissimilar and more delicate than those present when the plants flower, then lance-shaped. I would grow this remarkable lily just for the foliar display! Chris recently told me the Chicago Botanical Garden has a mass planting of them for the same reason. Moreover, each stem produces several dozen flowers (sometimes as many as 50) that start opening below and progressing upwards. This is referred to as an indeterminate inflorescence but with a different meaning than indeterminate growth of woody plants that I focused on in last month's blog. Each Martagon flower on the candelabra is 3-4 inches in diameter -- much of the literature says 2 inches, but I beg to differ. The flowers are fleshy and have strongly reflexed, usually spotted, distinct tepals, featuring six long exerted stamens with longitudinally dehiscent filaments and orange pollen. The variety of tepal colors is remarkable (every hue but blue) and the flowers are variably fragrant (both degree and type) but rarely as pervasive as many Orientals and Orienpets. The fragrance I have detected ranges from cream corn (very strange) to sweet fruit depending on species / cultivar. I fondly recall a mid May day I spent with my friends Lisa and Dan Burnham walking Soules and sampling the Martagon variation. ***** You will appreciate hearing that unlike many Oriental and Orientpet lilies, Martagon flowering stems are not top heavy thus no staking is needed. Further, the podlike flower buds are magnificent!!! The bud color is usually different from (often pink to somewhat violet, see second pic) and accentuate the open flowers. Anthesis, which lasts 2-3 weeks, well beyond the average length of flowering plant performance, begins in early May and, depending on the number of different species / cultivar as well as location, may extend into mid June.


The scaly yellow-orange bulbs, which get nearly fist sized, can be transplanted. I recommend late fall or early spring, if you must, but the better choice is inaction -- choose an appropriate location initially and leave them undisturbed. Make sure the distance between the top of the bulb and the ground surface is about five inches. Recently planted bulbs may underperform the year of transplanting (i.e., they have a "sulk period") and the bulbs are prone to rotting if overwatered. Another peculiarity of Martagons is that they are slow to produce roots and the total root mass is always sparse. Once planted I recommend some sort of marker to remind you that they are there and yet to start performing and so you or other garden visitors will not inadvertently crush the crown. For the same reason, I leave all or part of the spent stalks overwinter as a reminder, removing them once the leaves emerge in spring. A light liming of the soil when planting and periodically afterwards is recommended. I apply a small amount of charcoal ash from my grill, which also contain lots of small pieces of unburnt charcoal, and the plants seem to have responded favorably. And, when planting or transplanting, do not leave the bulbs out of the soil for long or they may start to wither. Moreover, since Martagons are heavy producers, I give all my clumps a healthy portion of my homemade compost every year. This creates a thick cooling duff surround that the plants seem to favor. The number of plants will increase over the years. Some sources recommend removing the flowering portion of the plants (once flowering is over) to divert energy to the below ground portion. Do not do this if you want to promote self-seeding although my plants have produced only one seedlings. Chris gets seedlings at Soules but glaciation provided his property with magnificent soil and his plants are older.


MARTAGONS ARE MUST-HAVE PLANTS, unless you have a deer problem. Now that I have had a chance to grow and become familiar with Martagons over several years I will never be without them. They are are a perfect and elegant addition to a shade or woodland setting. But I rarely see Martagons offered at garden centers, which is a shame. The good new is that my buddy Chris (Soules Garden) has numerous species in-ground and potted for sale. If you are a plant/gardening nerd you owe it to yourself to visit this unique setup on the SW side of Indy this spring. Depending on weather, Soules opens around May 1st (Fri-Sun). Bring a friend -- he or she will thank you. Martagons and the many other plants at Soules will blow you away as will Chris' horticultural expertise and kindness. As I said in my April 2023 rant (RESOURCES, with a focus on Soules Garden) Chris and Cynthia's place is a regional treasure. I also provide a historical sketch of Soules in the same rant.


The breathtaking beauty and fragrance of Martagons and Oriental/Orienpet lilies is captivating but they share a common (albeit occasional) problem, the bright red (and black) lily beetles and their disgusting grubs. Hand harvest and apply an insecticide at the first sign of infestation. My friend and super plantsman Anton Reznicek recently told me the lily beetles are a problem in his Detroit area garden. Other than the beetles the primary Lilium issue is the fact that plants in this genus are poisonous to cats. DO NOT use these lilies (or any member of the genus Lilium) as an inside cut flower display if you have cats. All parts of the plants, including the staining pollen will cause the cats kidney failure. But not to worry if left in the ground outside. I have four feline housemates but they never mess with the Martagons when I give them patio time. Chris has more cats than me and he will concur that the two (Martagons and kitties) are fine together, outside. You might also want to checkout my Jul 2022 rant Cats and Plants. Our furry friends, unless tempted by the inside display, are much smarter about such things than that subspecies of humans (i.e., ignoramus).


The above pics are Lilium x dalhansonii (top, at Soules), L. martagon 'Guinea Gold,' 'Claude Shride' and 'Snowy Morning.' I find ALL of the 'Morning' cultivars outstanding, as are 'Mahogany Bell,' 'Arabian Nights,' 'Terrace City,' et al. Notice that the Martagon flowers are nodding although the spectacular and shorter, but hard to find, L. tsingtauense (pictured) produces less recurved skyward facing orange flowers, but a less impressive foliar display. The flowers of 'Orange Marmalade' (a 3x hybrid, hansonii/martagon/tsingtauense) are perhaps even more orange and have a pigmented scape -- burgundy towards the apex. Good luck resisting. I wouldn't try :)

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