lily, common name for the Liliaceae, a plant family numbering several thousand species of as many as 300 genera, widely distributed over the earth and particularly abundant in warm temperate and tropical regions. Most species are perennial herbs characterized by bulbs (or other forms of enlarged underground stem) from which grow erect clusters of narrow, grasslike leaves or leafy stems. A few are woody and some are small trees.
Evolutionally, the lily family is probably the basic monocotyledonous stock, its ancestors having given rise to the majority of contemporary monocots, e.g., the orchids, the palms, the iris and amaryllis families, and possibly also the grasses. The relationships between plants of the modern lily family are not always clear, and some botanists subdivide the Liliaceae into several families or, if they take a broader view of the family, include some groups such as the Agave and Amaryllis families.
The name lily is used chiefly for plants of the genus Lilium and related species but is applied also to plants of other families, e.g., the water lily, the calla lily, and especially the numerous species of the amaryllis family (often included in the Liliaceae) whose blossoms closely resemble the true lilies in appearance. Familiar among North American species of Lilium are the wood lily (L. philadelphicum), Turk's-cap lily (L. superbum), and Canada, or wild yellow, lily (L. canadense) of the East and the leopard lily (L. pardalinum), Washington lily (L. washingtonianum), lemon lily (L. parryi), and Humboldt's lily (L. humboldtii) of the West. Widely cultivated and often naturalized Old World species are the Madonna lily (L. candidum) and the martagon lily (L. martagon), also called Turk's cap lily. The white trumpet lily (L. longiflorum) of Japan includes the Easter, or Bermuda, lily (var. eximium), which is the most popular greenhouse lily. The garden tiger lily is the Oriental species L. tigrinum, but many other lilies with spotted blossoms also bear the name.
Calochortus, mariposa or mariposa lily, is a genus of the lily family found in W North America. The white-blossomed sego lily (C. nuttallii) is the state flower of Utah. The day lilies, genus Hemerocallis [Gr.,=beautiful for a day], native to Central Europe and Asia, are much cultivated and often found naturalized along roadsides. The name day lily is occasionally used for the Oriental plantain lily genus (Hosta) because it too has short-lived flowers. The glory, or climbing, lilies (Gloriosa superba) are plants of tropical Asia and Africa that climb by means of tendrillike leaf tips.
Many common wildflowers also belong to the lily family, e.g., the asphodel, brodiea, camass, Canada mayflower (see mayflower), dogtooth violet, greenbrier (see smilax), lily of the valley, Solomon's-seal, star-of-Bethlehem, and trillium.
Because of the showy blossoms characteristic of the family, many species are cultivated as ornamentals. This is the chief economic value of the Liliaceae; over 160 genera are represented in American trade. Types of hyacinth, lily, meadow saffron, squill, and tulip constitute the bulk of the "Dutch bulb" trade. Yucca and aloe species are popular succulents; the latter is also a drug source. Asparagus and plants of the onion genus are the only liliaceous food plants of commercial importance. A small tropical tree was the original source of dragon's blood.
In religion and art the lily symbolizes purity, and as the flower of the Resurrection and of the Virgin it is widely used at Easter. The lily of the Bible (Cant. 2.1) has been variously identified with the scarlet anemone, Madonna lily, and other plants; the "lilies of the field" (Mat. 6.28) probably means any wildflowers, perhaps the iris.
Lilies are classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Liliopsida, order Liliales, family Liliaceae.
See F. F. Rockwell et al., The Complete Book of Lilies (1961); C. Feldmaier, Lilies (1970).
In heraldry, the lilies of the fleur-de-lis, or golden lilies, represent France, and especially the royal arms of the former French monarchy.
An orange lily is an emblem of the Orange Order.
lilies of the field in biblical translations, any of a number of conspicuous Palestinian flowers, variously identified as a lily, tulip, anemone, and gladiolus. In Matthew 6:28, they are taken as a type of natural beauty not earned by human effort (‘they toil not, neither do they spin’), but which is unexampled (‘Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these’).
lily of the valley in the Bible, used to translate the Vulgate's lilium convallium (Song of Solomon), an unidentified plant.
See also gild the lily, Lent lily.
lil·y / ˈlilē/ • n. 1. a widely cultivated bulbous plant (genus Lilium) with large trumpet-shaped, typically fragrant, flowers on a tall, slender stem. The lily family (Liliaceae) includes many flowering bulbs, such as bluebells, hyacinths, and tulips. Several plants are often placed in different families, esp. Alliaceae (onions and their relatives), Aloaceae (aloes), and Amaryllidaceae (amaryllis, daffodils, jonquil). ∎ short for water lily. ∎ used in names of other plants with similar flowers or leaves, e.g., arum lily. 2. a heraldic fleur-de-lis. DERIVATIVES: lil·ied / ˈlilēd/ adj.