Sandy’s Garden ... Lilium Candidum – The Madonna Lily

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

I return year after year to the town of Garda on the shores of Lake Garda in the Province of Verona.

It’s an area where flowers are grown in profusion and I realised I had no idea of which flower enjoyed the privilege of being regarded as the national flower of Italy. So what could be easier than refer to the internet to find the answer? “Italy’s national flower is the lily, and it symbolically represents purity and refined beauty,” one site assured me. Simple … until I read, in another website, that the lily vies with the cyclamen and the daisy for the title of national flower! Still, on the basis that the candidate with the most votes wins, I declare that, on the basis of my internet poll, the lily shall be deemed to be the national flower of Italy.

Next, I went in quest of the answer to the question, “Why is the lily the national flower of Italy?” And I learn that, for Italian people … and not just for Italian people … white lilies represent modesty and virginity, orange is for passion and yellow symbolizes gaiety; and, since Italian lilies come in a wide variety of colours including white, orange and yellow, all these attributes are covered. But the lily family is a very large one indeed, with the majority of species having originated in the Far East; so which specific lily has the best claim to be the Italian national flower? Not for the first time … nor, I suspect, for the last … I turned to that mine of information The Modern Herbal by Mrs. Maud Grieve (first published in 1931!), where I learned that “the Shushan, or Lily of Scripture, had probably a very broad meaning and might refer to any striking blossom. This white lily was a popular favourite with the ancient Greeks and Romans. In the early days of Christianity it was dedicated by the Church to the Madonna (hence its popular name ‘Madonna Lily’), probably because its delicate whiteness was considered a symbol of purity. It is employed on the 2nd July, in connection with the celebration of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin.”

Images of lilies which date back to, perhaps, 1500 B.C. were found in Crete, which should not surprise us, for we know that these majestic flowers have long held a role in ancient mythology. The Ancient Greeks believed that the white flower they called ‘leiron’ … which the Italians call ‘giglio’ and which we call ‘lily’ … came from the milk of Hera, the queen of the gods. Botanically, the Madonna lily is Lilium candidum, which means, simply, the ‘white lily’. The stiff, erect stem springs from a bulb and grows to something between one metre and two metres high … three to six feet in old money … and carry pure white, trumpet-shaped flowers in June and July. These flowers have a strong, sweet perfume, so potent that it actually produces a sort of asthmatic reaction in some people, myself included. Unfortunately for such people, lilies are popular as gifts because of their associations with purity and refined beauty.

Mrs. Grieve assures us in words which brook no argument that, “the bulbs, boiled in milk or water, (can be used) as emollient cataplasms for tumours, ulcers and external inflammation and have been much used for this purpose in popular practice. The fresh bulb, bruised and applied to hard tumours, softens and ripens them sooner than any other application.” As ever, I merely report her words and certainly do not offer any warranty regarding these claims, although one may find, in a herbalist’s shop, an ointment made from the bulbs to take away corns and remove the pain and inflammation arising from burns and scalds, which they cure without leaving any scar. So is the plant which is alleged to possess these properties the national flower of Italy? Heaven alone knows … I hope!