Growing Tiger Lily Flowers

Tiger lily flowers growing in front of bushes
David Beaulieu

Tiger lilies furnish the yard with colorful flowers, but do not be swayed by their good looks into assuming that you should necessarily grow them. Learn about both their benefits and drawbacks before making a decision. Only then will you be able to weigh their good points against their bad points and decide whether or not to include these stately plants in your landscaping.

What Exactly Are Tiger Lilies?

It is important to be clear on just what exactly constitutes the "tiger lily" plants discussed in this article, because the same common name is often used for totally different plants. The facts below pertain to what plant taxonomists have classified as Lilium lancifolium (alternate botanical name, Lilium tigrinum). The genus name indicates it is a true lily, not a daylily such as Stella de Oro.

Botanically speaking, these are herbaceous perennials that grow from bulbs. Gardeners generally plant the bulbs in spring. They are summer-flowering bulb plants, unlike daffodilstulips, etc., which are spring-flowering bulb plants. Note that the word, "bulb," is sometimes used loosely to include related underground plant structures (namely, corms, rhizomes and tubers). Dahlias and cannas are two of the other popular summer-flowering bulbs.

Plant Attributes

The nodding, 4-inch flowers bloom in late July in a zone-5 garden, for example. Orange is the classic color for this plant, although it does come in other flower colors (yellow, red). At bloom time, this tall, skinny, unbranched plant stands 5 feet tall. The petals (or, technically, "tepals") of the highly interesting flowers curve backwards and are speckled with brown spots. Because of this so-called "recurving" (as well as the dark spots), they are reminiscent of the blooms of Turk's cap lilies (Lilium superbum). The plants' long style and six long stamens stick out from the bottom of the flower.

A display of ten or more flowers per flower stalk is typical. Unhappily, the blooms are not fragrant, as they are on Stargazer and Easter lilies. The sword shape of the leaves gives the plants their species name (lancifolium means "lance-leafed" in Latin).

As spectacular as the flowers are, the bulbils are perhaps even more distinctive. The bulbils are black, berry-like structures housed in the leaf axils. To propagate these perennials, some people harvest and plant the bulbils. But plants will spread over time, on their own, to form larger clumps. If you wish to minimize spreading, remove the bulbils and dispose of them.

Where Do Tiger Lily Plants Grow?

Indigenous to the Far East, tiger lily plants can be grown in planting zones 3 to 9. Like many flowers, they prefer to be grown in a sunny location with well-drained soil. However, these tough specimens are not nearly as fussy about growing conditions as are many plants; for example, they will tolerate partial shade. Tiger lilies have just average water needs. 

Their toughness helps explain their ability to naturalize. Indeed, they have become naturalized plants throughout much of the New England region in the United States, for example. Their tendency to spread may be a red flag.

Plant Care Facts

As tall, skinny plants, you may need to stake them. But the trade-off is that their height makes them effective in the back row of a flower bed: Perched atop such a tall stalk, their flowers will still show up. Such positioning works out favorably in another way, as well: to hide yellow leaves. Foliage on the lower part of the stalks will die first (in late summer). These yellow leaves will not be as noticeable when the plants are growing in the back row. Once all of the leaves have yellowed, you have the option of cutting the stalks down to ground level.

Regardless, you should cut down the stalks by late fall and dispose of them to minimize disease problems. While not, themselves, susceptible to diseases, they are known to be a potential carrier of viruses that can infect other members of their genus, so avid growers of the genus, Lilium sometimes avoid growing them.

Fertilize in mid-spring. Some gardeners use compost, but you can also use a 5-10-5 fertilizer. Mulch in late spring to keep the root zone cooler during the summer. Finally, immediately capture and kill any red lily beetles (Lilioceris lilii) that you see eating the leaves. If neglected, this pest problem only becomes greater over time.

Tiger by the Tail: The Case for Not Growing Tiger Lilies

Despite being gorgeous, tiger lily plants have three drawbacks:

  • They harbor viruses that can harm other members of their genus
  • They can spread aggressively under ideal conditions
  • They are poisonous to cats

Regarding the aggressive spreading, we see a typical dynamic at play, which can be summed up in the following formula: alien status + tendency to spread = potential to become invasive.

Uses for the Lilium Genus in Landscaping

There are many species and hybrids within the genus, Lilium. Fortunately, they do not all bloom at once. Rather, they disperse their vibrant colors and bold floral shapes across all or parts of the months of June, July and August. This makes them valued allies for gardeners who demand top-notch floral quality throughout the summer months.

The Asiatic hybrids (such as Ceb Dazzle) and Easter lilies bloom first in the Northern yard, followed more or less simultaneously by the Asiatic lilies (such as tiger lilies) and some of the Oriental hybrids, such as Stargazer

Many new gardeners find that they have an overabundance of flowers in spring but lack sufficient floral color as the summer progresses. The genus, Lilium can help you solve this problem, affording fantastic summertime color. Keep an eye out for new lilies and long-blooming perennials that you find attractive and grow a mixture of them to improve the sequence-of-bloom outlook in your landscaping.