The Garden Gate: The tiger in your garden casts a blaze of splendor

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Flowers are just like people.

They come in different sizes, colors, proportions, habitats, preferences and histories, and they have a venerable past. Of all the different lilies there are, the ones we call tiger lilies are demanding our attention.

Have you realized that so-called tiger lilies have spots, not stripes?

They are the subject for nearly as much poetry and fantasy as Madonna lilies. We notice such quotations as “When lilies turned to tigers, blaze.”

Lewis Carroll writes in “Alice in Wonderland”:

“‘O tiger lily,’ said Alice, addressing one which was waving gracefully about in the breeze, ‘I wish you could talk.’

“‘We can talk,’ said the lily, ‘When there is anybody worth talking to.’”

Tiger lilies are one of the joys of late summer and early fall. They are colorful accents in many Tennessee gardens. They grow wild, too, along many highways and country roads, providing grace and color in the landscape.

The “Lilliam” native to the Near East has long been the symbol of motherhood. It held a prominent place in the mythology of Sumeria, Babylonia, Assyria and Egypt. It was the emblem of many of the chief goddesses in ancient religions.

In the prehistoric Minoan period of Crete of about 3000 B.C., the lily was the emblem of Britomartis, the great mother. At the same time, it was the emblem of hunters, fishermen and sailors.

In ancient Greece’s heyday, the lily was the flower of Hera, goddess of the moon. This special blossom of women’s lives was believed to protect their marriages and childbirths. In some very ancient religions, the lily symbolized earth and air. What a versatile plant it is, indeed.

According to ancient Semitic folklore, the lily sprang from the tears of Eve when she was banished from the Garden of Eden. Later Christian lore reflected that all lilies had been yellow, but some became white when the Virgin Mary stooped to pick them.

Christian symbolism has the white lily representing purity, chastity and innocence.

It has become the symbol of Easter. White Madonna leaves were invariably pictured in any early painting of the Annunciation.

In literature, the lily is second to the rose in popularity. Many famous writers have extolled its charm through the centuries. Joseph Joubert was sure the lily had a soul. Tennyson mentions lilies repeatedly, and Shakespeare’s works are full of lily references.

“To gild the lily” is a phrase that means to improve upon perfection.

Oregon is the Lily State. Lilies have been of increasing interest in the United States in recent years, with chapters of the National Lily Society burgeoning. Some of them are specialty lily organizations, including tiger lily clubs.

Of the hundreds of new varieties of lilies, a favorite is still the Madonna. It was immortalized by the Renaissance artist Fra Lippo Lippi, for whom it was a trademark.

The so-called “language of flowers” was popular during the Victorian era. Tiger lilies signified great disdain and dislike, while Madonna lilies were the symbol of purity.

There is tremendous variety in the lily family. It is hard to believe that cousins of the stately regal calla lily and Madonna lily include onions, asparagus, yucca and many spring wildflowers, including wake robins, bellwort, dogtooth violets, lily-of-the-valley and skunk cabbage. And don’t forget the golden tiger lilies which, with their black accent markings, can grow to amazing height and tower over other less aggressive flowers in our gardens.

The lily as an art form is well known. Lily motifs are often found in antique lace, especially in lace altar cloths, which are frequently also embellished with stylized lambs, crosses and angels.

This lace, often made with golden-colored threads, is often referred to as holy lace, because it was made by nuns for centuries.

It is very important to perfumers, who usually refer to it as Orris. It is used in combination with many oils and attars to make different scents.

Iris, in all its many forms and colors, culminates in the beautiful golden and black tiger lilies that command our attention.

Following after the tradition of July Fourth celebrations, it seems almost like a floral fireworks to see the golden iris bloom.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.