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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.

Common Species

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.

Economic Importance

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).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


Although it has a long history as a Christian symbol, the lily became an Easter symbol relatively recently. As a Christian symbol the lily represents purity and virtue. Christian artists paired it perhaps most often with Jesus'mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary (see Mary, Blessed Virgin). Before the advent of Christianity the ancient Greeks and Romans associated the flower with the goddesses Hera and Juno. More than one hundred years ago Americans began to use the lily as an Easter decoration and symbol.

Pagan Folklore

In ancient times the white lily was associated with several mother goddesses, including the Greek goddess, Hera, and her Roman counterpart, Juno. According to Greek mythology Hera, the queen of the gods, fell into many a jealous rage over the escapades of her flirtatious husband, Zeus. One day one of Zeus' human lovers bore him a son named Hercules. Zeus worried that his son's human ancestry might prevent him from inheriting the gift of immortality. He asked Hera to breastfeed the child in the hopes that drinking the milk of a goddess would confer eternal life upon him. The furious goddess refused to help her rival's son. So Zeus tricked Hera into breastfeeding the baby by giving her a powerful sleeping potion. When Hera fell into a deep slumber he brought the baby Hercules to her and let the infant suckle from the sleeping goddess' breast. The babe sucked so greedily that more milk than he could swallow gushed forth. The milk splashed across the heavens, forming a glowing white band stretched across the nighttime skies. The Romans called this celestial phenomenon the Via Lactea, which means the "Milky Road." We call it the "Milky Way." Some of the drops of milk fell all the way to earth. Upon hitting the ground they turned into beautiful white lily flowers.

Another version of the tale suggests that the red lily already flourished on the earth when Hercules was born. It claims that as Hera's milk rained down on the earth, each drop that hit a red lily turned it snow white. Yet another Greek legend suggests that jealousy over the beauty of the white lily brought the red lily and orange-colored tiger lily into existence. Hera claimed the white lily as her emblem while Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, whose Roman counterpart was called Venus, claimed the rose. The legend states that Aphrodite became jealous of Hera over the beauty and perfection of the lily. Hence she caused a large golden pistil to grow inside the flower to mar its perfect whiteness. The lily blushed with shame over its unseemly appearance, turning from white to orange and then red. This story hints at a certain sexual symbolism sometimes attributed to the lily due to the shape of its pistil. Indeed in Victorian times some people removed the pistils from lilies used in church decoration, for fear that the sight of them might unduly stimulate the congregation.

Christian Folklore

The lily has many meanings and associations in Christian tradition. Throughout the Bible lilies are praised for their beauty. Jesus called attention to the beauty of the lily in one of his parables, teaching his followers to trust that God will clothe them in greater splendor than he has the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:28-30, Luke 12:27-28). In Christian art the lily often stands for purity and virtue. Because she above all other women is thought to possess these qualities, the Virgin Mary is frequently shown with lilies. For example, in many European paintings of the Annunciation the angel Gabriel hands Mary a lily. In Semitic folklore the lily recalled Eve, whom the Bible identifies as the first woman God created. An old Semitic tale claimed each tear that Eve shed as she left the Garden of Eden turned into a lily when it hit the ground.

Other saints whose reputation for chastity and goodness earned them the honor of being depicted with the lily include St. Francis of Assisi, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Clare, and St. Dominic. The Virgin Mary's husband, St. Joseph, is often shown with the lily as well, which may represent the notion that he and Mary lived together without ever consummating their marriage. Another tale declares that the lily became associated with St. Joseph because of an incident that occurred at the time of his betrothal. The high priest entrusted with making a suitable match for the virtuous maiden Mary summoned all the men who sought her hand and had them leave their staves overnight in the temple sanctuary. When the high priest went to retrieve them the following morning he found that Joseph's staff had sprouted beautiful white lilies, signifying his worthiness to wed Mary.

Another Christian legend gives the lily a role in the events leading up to Jesus' crucifixion (for more on crucifixion, see Cross). The main purpose of the tale, however, seems to be explaining why lily flowers droop on the end of their stalks and why red lilies grow in Palestine. The legend claims that as Jesus walked in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his death the flowers bowed their heads as he passed by in recognition of his sorrow. The vain lily did not, thinking that the sight of its beauty would comfort him. Jesus paused for a moment to look upon the lovely white lily. When the lily saw the humility in his gaze it was overcome with shame for its own conceit. It blushed a deep shade of orange-red and drooped its head. It has remained that way ever since.

The Easter Lily

The lily family contains thousands of species divided up into about two hundred and fifty different genera. Daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, and amarylli are members of the lily family. In addition to flowers, many common foods belong to the lily family, including onions, garlic, and asparagus.

Images of the Madonna lily have graced hundreds of years of European religious artwork. This beautiful flower blooms in the summer and therefore never became an Easter symbol. The flower that Americans know as the Easter lily is, in fact, a native of Japan. Travelers brought this new species of lily back to England in 1819. In the 1850s commercial cultivation of the exotic new blooms began in the British colony of Bermuda. They soon acquired a variety of names, including trumpet lily, gun lily, blunderbuss lily, and Bermuda lily. Botanists dubbed the new species Lilium longiflorum.

In the 1880s an enthusiastic American gardener named Mrs. Thomas P. Sargent discovered these new lilies on a trip to Bermuda. Returning to Philadelphia with lily bulbs, she introduced the plant to American flower fanciers. Churchgoers looking for a fragrant, white flower that could be forced to blossom at Easter time quickly popularized the imported blooms as Easter decorations.

In the early part of the twentieth century America imported most of its lily bulbs from Japan. When World War II cut off this trade route, American flower growers began to cultivate the bulbs themselves. Today most Easter lilies sold in the United States come from bulbs grown on farms in northern California and in Oregon.

The lily's long history as a Christian symbol of purity and goodness and its white color probably figured into its appeal as an Easter symbol. White is the liturgical color of Easter, that is, the color of priests' robes and church decorations at Easter time in those churches that observe these seasonal color changes. In the language of church symbolism white represents joy, glory, light, and purity. Hence the Easter lily's large white flowers can serve as living emblems of these qualities. Flowers themselves function as age-old symbols of springtime, but also as symbols of new life, a principal theme of the Easter festival (see also Resurrection).

Further Reading

Beals, Katharine M. Flower Lore and Legend. 1917. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1973. Clement, Clara Erskine. A Handbook of Christian Symbols. 1886. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1971. Heath, Sidney. The Romance of Symbolism. 1909. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1976. Lehner, Ernst, and Johanna Lehner. Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees. 1960. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1990. Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter Garland. 1963. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1999. Metford, J. C. J. Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1983. Myers, Robert J. Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1972.
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



any bulbous perennial plant of the genus Lilium of the family Liliaceae. The flowers are white, yellow, red, or orange and measure 13–15 cm across; they are tubular, campanulate, or bowl-shaped and often are fragrant. The fruit is a capsule with numerous flat brown seeds. The stems are leafy and die annually. In some lilies aerial bulblets capable of vegetative reproduction form in the axils of the leaves. Adventitious roots often develop underground at the base of the stem. The linear, lanceolate, or ovate leaves are sessile and either alternate or whorled. Lily bulbs consist of open scales that are succulent and egg-shaped.

There are more than 90 species of lilies, distributed in the forests and on the mountain slopes of the northern hemisphere. Fourteen species are found in the USSR—in the European USSR, the Caucasus, Siberia, and the Far East. All lilies are ornamentals, and more than 2,000 varieties are cultivated. They are grown in well-drained areas and fertilized regularly. In the central zone of the USSR some species and varieties must be cultivated in greenhouses or covered during the winter. Lilies are propagated by seeds, bulbs, offsets, aerial bulblets, and scales.


Zalivskii, I. L. Lilii. Moscow-Leningrad, 1952.
Rockwell, F. F., E. C. Grayson, and J. de Graaff. The Complete Book of Lilies. New York, 1961.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

What does it mean when you dream about a lily?

The lily is said to be one of the most spiritual of flowers. It possesses a fragrance that stimulates the glands and the chakras (the psychic centers). The fragrance of this flower is said to transform one’s mood into a peaceful and blissful state.

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


Any of the perennial bulbous herbs with showy unscented flowers constituting the genus Lilium.
Any of various other plants having similar flowers.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


of then city-state Florence. [Flower Symbolism: Brewer Note-Book, 334]


emblematic of the Blessed Virgin Mary. [Christian Symbol-ism: Appleton, 39]
See: Purity


symbol of Blessed Virgin; by extension, chastity. [Christian Symbolism: Appleton, 57–58]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. any liliaceous perennial plant of the N temperate genus Lilium, such as the Turk's-cap lily and tiger lily, having scaly bulbs and showy typically pendulous flowers
2. the bulb or flower of any of these plants
3. any of various similar or related plants, such as the water lily, plantain lily, and day lily
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


(LIsp LibrarY) A C++ class library by Roger Sheldon <> which gives C++ programmers the capability to write Lisp-style code. Lily's garbage collection mechanism is not sufficient for commercial use however and the documentation is incomplete. It is distributed under the GNU Library General Public License.

Version: 0.1.
This article is provided by FOLDOC - Free Online Dictionary of Computing (
References in periodicals archive ?
Specifically, the question under consideration is: "In Weed's Mariposa Lily, Calochortus weedii var.
Nonfruiting hermaphroditic flowers of Calochortus leichtlinii (Liliaceae): potential reproductive functions.
The Calochortus are a spectacular American wildflower that can be grown in domestic gardens.
Calochortus Also known as a fairy lantern, this late spring-flowering bulb has long narrow green leaves and carries a three- petal led yellow flower which opens to reveal striking brown blotches, similar to butterfly wings.
CALOCHORTUS LUTEUS - also known as a fairy lantern, has long narrow green leaves and carries a three-petalled yellow flower which opens to reveal striking brown blotches, similar to the wings of a butterfly.
The geophytes Dichelostemma capitatum, Calochortus albus, Sanicula laciniata, and Erigeron sanctarum had correlations with heating that were similar to those of Koeleria, de spite the greater depth their perennating tissue occurs in the soil (Fig.
No one had described Calochortus tiburonensis, a member of the lily family, until 1972.
Sm.) Espejo Viridantha tortilis E CM MTX, BQ (Klotzsch ex Baker) Espejo CALOCHORTACEAE Calochortus barbatus H MX MTX, P, BQ, (Kunth) J.
Many native forbs like mariposa lily (Calochortus macrocarpus) and Douglas' brodiaea (Tritelia douglasii) occurred in the open spaces between shrubs; however, cheatgrass often dominated these spaces.
("Calocorthineae").--Type: Calochortus Pursh, 1813.--Validated