Lilium lancifolium ‘Splendens’

There are easier ways to grow starchy roots, but if you want a spectacular veg patch or an edible flower bed then Lilium lancifolium ‘Splendens’ (tiger lily) is a plant that erases the difference between the two. Its ornamental appeal lies mostly in its striking spotted orange flowers (which inevitably raise the question, why tiger rather than leopard lily?) the petals of which curve right back to the stem, exposing long stamens, giving an overall effect that always puts me in mind of a jellyfish when viewed from the side.

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There are two edible parts. The flowers can be eaten, although an internet meme holds that the pollen causes vomiting. Eat the Weeds suggests that this arose from the fact that all parts of the plant are indeed poisonous to cats and quotes one author who has eaten the pollen with no ill effects. Next flowering season I’ll try some (tentatively) myself and let you know. The bulbs (which I have tried myself) can be either fried or boiled. They have a mild taste and a starchy texture similar to a floury potato. They are traditionally cultivated in Asia as a food crop.

tiger lily bulb - continuing the jellyfish theme

tiger lily bulb – continuing the jellyfish theme

Spectacular as the flowers are, they are completely sterile and this lily doesn’t produce fertile seed. Instead, it can be propagated by splitting the bulb or by potting up the handy little bulbils that grow along the length of the stem. These are best grown on in pots for the first year, then planted out and grown on for two or three more years until they are big enough for flowering and/or eating. If anyone would like to give it a go, I sometimes have bulbils in my seed list. Tiger lily likes a warm, sunny spot with freely draining soil.

tiger lily bulbils

King’s spear (Asphodeline lutea)

I first came across king’s spear (Asphodeline lutea) at the Plants for a Future site down in Cornwall, where I was captivated by the beauty and sweet taste of the yellow flowers. It only remained to try to answer my usual question: yes, but will it grow in Aberdeen?

I had almost come to the conclusion that the answer was no and king’s spear was coming close to joining my failures list. It has grown quite happily for around five years, surviving temperatures of down to minus fifteen centigrade on one occasion, but there had never been any sign of those flowers. This year, however, perhaps sensing impending doom if it didn’t get its metaphorical finger out, it has flowered gloriously.

king's spear flower

King’s spear’s flowers are sweet and mild. They are borne on huge flower spikes, with the individual flowers lasting only for a very short while, which means that they lend themselves well to regular picking for salads. Their main drawback is that it also means that they don’t store well and they are best used the same day that they are picked (which is not usually difficult). New flowers are opened the next day so little is lost decoratively.

It has an unusual growth pattern, presumably linked to the climate in its native Turkey. It comes into growth in the autumn and grows happily through the winter. Cold weather slows it down but doesn’t seem to stop it. It then flowers in spring and summer (mine started in mid May and looks like it will make it through most of July), before going dormant for a period in late summer.

There are two other edible parts. The leaf bundles can be harvested during the growing season. The tougher ends of the leaves are trimmed off and they are boiled, rather like leeks. The flavour is mild and pleasant and they make a welcome winter vegetable. The roots are also listed as edible: apparently the ancient Greeks used to mash them together with oil and figs. I have tried them and all I can say is that (a) the ancient Greeks must have had more time on their hands than I do as they are very fiddly and (b) I can see why they used the oil and the figs – probably to disguise the flavour.

A. lutea growing in the Winter Gardens, Duthie Park, Aberdeen

King’s spear growing in the Winter Gardens, Duthie Park, Aberdeen

King’s spear is very easily propagated by dividing the roots and it is widely available since it is used as a decorative plant. For me it only remains to find out whether its flowering this year was down to the very mild winter and spring or if it is now going to be a regular feature.

UPDATE. Since this was written, king’s spear has flowered most years, although not always. I have also discovered that the best part to eat is the whole immature flower spike – although then of course you don’t get the flowers.