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Lily Flower Bud

More than 4,000 species of plants belong to the lily family Liliaceae, but less than 100 species comprising the genus Lilium are commonly referred to as lilies. Occasionally plants in other genera and families, such as the water lilies belonging to the family Nymphaeaceae, are called lilies due to their resemblance to true lilies.

Lily Flower Bud

Tall, erect stems, narrow leaves, and showy, six-part flowers are some of the most visible outward signs that a plant may be a lily, but true lilies can often be differentiated from other similar-looking specimens by their bulbs. The bulbs of true lilies are characteristically composed of loose scales that may be easily peeled apart. Each scale will eventually turn into a new bulb when planted, a method widely utilized by professional breeders of lilies.

Lilies have a long history of cultivation by humans, and were prized as ornamentals and as medicinal plants by several ancient civilizations. Much of the rich symbolic significance ascribed to certain colors and varieties of lilies today has its roots in the practices and beliefs of these early cultures. For example, white lilies are commonly carried in the bouquets of modern brides, a tradition related to the ancient Roman association between lilies and purity and the custom of Roman women wearing lilies in their hair on their wedding day. The link between certain lily species and innocence was further cemented in the Middle Ages, when the Madonna lily began commonly appearing in artistic renderings of the Virgin Mary.

Contributing Authors

Nathan S. Claxton, Shannon H. Neaves, and Michael W. Davidson - National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, 1800 East Paul Dirac Dr., The Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, 32310.