Lily Family

Yellow Mariposa Lily © KKorbholz

Liliaceae (Lil-ee-AY-see-ee)

Iconic Features

  • Generally grow from bulbs
  • Leaves usually smooth-edged blades with parallel veins
  • Usually large flowers with 6 colored tepals

Description (Jepson)

  • Monocotyledons (monocots) – monocots are a major lineage of flowering, mostly herbaceous plants, generally characterized by
    • Single seed leaf (cotyledon)
    • Linear or oblong leaves with parallel venation
    • Flower parts in threes
    • Pollen grains with a single pore
    • Vascular bundles scattered in stem
    • Fibrous root system
  • Perennial herbs
  • Geophytes (plants with underground storage organs)
    • Grow from bulbs (short underground stems with fleshy leaves, e.g. onions) or occasionally from rhizomes (horizontal underground stems)
  • Leaves
    • Basal or along the stem (cauline)
    • Alternate (1 leaf at each junction with stem) or whorled (3 or more leaves/flowers at each junction with stem)
    • Simple (not divided into leaflets) and entire (with smooth edges)
  • Flowers
    • Inflorescence (flower arrangement) in small groups or single flower
    • Bisexual, radially-symmetric, usually large flowers
      • 3 petals and 3 sepals (outer flower parts), in 2 separate whorls, similar in appearance and collectively called tepals
        • Usually colorful and often patterned
      • Usually 6 stamens, sometimes 3
    • Provide nectar for insect pollinators
    • Ovary superior (above the attachment of other flower parts)
  • Fruit a many-seeded capsule (a dry, multi-chambered fruit that splits open), which is wind-dispersed, or a berry (a usually multi-seeded fruit with a fleshy ovary wall), dispersed by animals


  • Approximately 630 species, mainly in northern temperate regions (Jepson)
    • Species count varies widely as the treatment of this family is highly unsettled
    • Includes fritillaries, mariposa lilies, leopard lilies, and many cultivated ornamentals, including daylilies, tulips, and hyacinths
  • Geophytes (e.g. plants growing from bulbs, corms, rhizomes, or enlarged taproots) are well adapted to survive fire, our Mediterranean climate’s long, dry summers, and extended droughts
    • Above-ground growth dies back after flowering, while underground the plant survives with stored water and nutrients
  • In addition to a fibrous root system that takes in water and nutrients, many members of the Lily family have contractile roots
    • Contractile roots adjust the depth of the bulb or corm in the soil by expanding and then contracting, pulling the bulb downward
  • Deer heavily browse many species
  • Native people harvested many Lily species and other edible geophytes (Anderson 2005)
    • Bulbs were boiled, steamed, roasted, or baked in earthen ovens
    • Plants were actively managed
      • Hardwood sticks were used for digging
      • Some plants were spared to allow future crops
      • Bulblets were dispersed and replanted
      • Areas were burned to decrease competition and recycle nutrients
  • CAUTION – some species are toxic, e.g. Easter lily (Lilium longiflorum) and some Fritillaria species
    • Bulbs may also be confused with those of the highly toxic death camas / star lilies (Toxicoscordion species) in the False-hellebore family
  • Flowers in this family have acquired religious and artistic significance in many cultures
    • In ancient Assyria and Egypt, lilies were an emblem of sovereignty and a symbol of purity
    • In the Middle Ages, lilies became a symbol of the Virgin Mary
    • As funeral flowers, lilies symbolize the soul restored to innocence after death
  • Scientific and common name from the included genus Lilium, from the Greek lirion, “a lily”; the genus was published by Carl Linnaeus in 1753
  • Historically large and highly diverse family, which has been greatly reduced based on studies of embryonic development, morphological details, and genetic evidence
  • Represented by 8 species at Edgewood

See General References

Specific References

Anderson, M.K. 2005. Tending the Wild. University of California, Berkeley.

Schusler, T.M. 2004. Ecological impacts of high deer densities. TIEE: Teaching Issues and Experiments in Ecology. Ecological Society of America.

Kandeler, R. and W. Ullrich. 2009, May. Symbolism of plants: Examples from European-Mediterranean culture presented with biology and history of art: June: Lilies. Journal of Experimental Botany 60: 1893–1895. Oxford Academic.

Browse Some Edgewood Plants in this Family