Lurking behind the elegance

I’m in a kind of melt over Lilium formosanum.  I’ve known it for 30 years, from gardening around it at Ripponlea, but have never (inexpicably) grown it myself until now.


It is a truly remarkable plant.  The purple-striped green buds, held vertically, are magical, appearing to pull their chins back into the main stem like a cobra preparing to strike.  They open to purple-striped white blooms of the most fabulous slow taper, with a dramatic flaring at the mouth.  I can’t imagine how this arrangement of lines – how this inherent design – could be improved in any way.  The flowers are scented, though I can’t decide if the perfume is of lily-of-the-valley-type quality, or something a little soapier.  Either way, its lovely.  Flowers eventually drop clean, and the seed head swells and stands vertically, drying into an ornamental structure worth picking for dried flower arrangements.  All this happens at about 1.5 – 1.8m (except in the variety ‘pricei’ which only gets to 60cm – who’d bother?).

One of the most notable things about it is that it can be grown from seed and flowered in its first year.  Theoretically at least.  It usually takes me about twice as long to flower any bulb from seed than what the books tell us it should.  I expect that’s because they’re always quoting optimum conditions (which my conditions and care never, ever are), and that I’m a chronic underfeeder.  These took me a little over two years – I think (by then the plastic labels have faded too much to read).

To top it off, it’s very tolerant of both sun and a fair bit of heat.


What more could you ask for?

Actually, it’s less we want from Lilium formosanum.  It’s kind of disappointing when you find, after harbouring a deep longing for it for several decades, that it’s a weed.  I remember the thrill of seeing it along roadsides in the far east of Victoria about twenty-five years ago.  Then I remember hearing that Don Burke had said on his show that it’s a serious weed and we shouldn’t be growing it.  Like all weed advice, this can be adopted (albeit with great caution) according to your climate, as so far its escape into the wild has been limited to frost free, high rainfall areas.


But it really shakes up the idea of a weed.  Everything about this plant is elegant and refined.  There may be very few weeds that can boast of those characteristics, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t dwell in the same plant.

Question:  Is this possibly the plant most successful at hiding its weed potential behind elegance and/or visual appeal?  Any others you can think of?


  1. Hi Michael,
    Interesting question. The standard definition of a weed is a plant growing where it is not wanted and direct completion with other desirable species (varieties). This raises issues about whether we might desire the lily to be where it is and whether it outcompetes others that have a greater right to be there. We are now in the realm of habitat integrity and conservation and the other big one, economic damage to farming systems. I guess the former is the relevant measure in the case of our lily and it must give people who care about these things the heebie jeebies to see them careering over the countryside. But a question: Do they only grow on disturbed land like roadside verges or do they actually invade intact native bushland?
    No-one seems to worry about exotic grasses invading every nook and cranny but hey, that’s different . . . farmers make money out of it and it isn’t conspicuous.
    Cheers, Marcus

    1. Thanks Marcus. You brought up some questions I toyed with including, then shied away from, thinking that they’d be better in discussion following, and here they are in response number one. Ta.
      I love the idea of evaluating habitat integrity. The distinction is never made between a weed that might be in danger of invading already weed-ridden ecosystems, and those in danger of invading otherwise pristine bush. I believe the distinction should be clear.
      Nor does there seem to be any evaluation of the danger of displacing more desirable species.
      Maybe this info is available, but not to the plebs like me. Are these distinctions made and evaluated, and if so, where could I read about them?
      The whole issue is just way too black and white – possibly a reflection of limited funding, as much as pure ignorance (though I suspect both make their contribution). I can understand why almost any perception of danger of escape should be enough to prevent a plant entering the continent, but when the plant is already here – when the horse has already bolted, so to speak – and you know that it will not do so in your own climate…

  2. My favourite lily, delicious pregnant buds, long slim trumpets suddenly flaring at the end, elegance personified! Luckily it is not a weed in Tasmania, so I don’t have to feel guilty about nurturing it. l also love to see my meagre clumps of arums flowering but was shocked to see rampant infestations of them in the Margaret river area of Western Australia, still beautiful but looking a little menacing as they obliterated the original flora, that sight changed my perspective a little

    1. Yep – it would appear that there’s no danger in Tas. And that is the point. Weed potential is highly specific to climate, and while taking due caution, this needs to be recognised by the authorities. No doubt being underfunded and therefore understaffed, oversimplification and over-warning are inevitable.

  3. I’m excited to hear that L. formosanum is a winner: I had ordered some to try for the first time this spring. Now I’m even more excited to see how it behaves!

  4. I fell there is a very fat blue line between environmentalists who are serious in their work, and the group that I’d like to cal Plant fascists. The former are dedicated to addressing serious issues, such as Patterson’s curse, lantana, gorse and other species that threaten the environment in certain areas of the country. They are also capable of educating the wider audience by providing well researched data. The latter group just have an emotional attachment to the “all native” idea. They see everything in black and white, and they can be quite loud and aggressive. They believe that there is a great distinction between the role Australian native plants and their exotic cousins play in the environment. They want to protect the native flora, even when and where it’s not worth protecting. They froth at their mouths at the sight of a single daffodil somewhere on a roadside, happily growing among some native weeds. They tie themselves to a dangerously decrepit gum tree in order to “save” the street. This makes them feel very powerful and important in their own limited world. Let’s not worry about them.

    1. You’re right. We shouldn’t worry about them. But there’s no stopping them worrying about me, unfortunately

  5. As usual when reading your blog I am struck by your descriptive and intelligent writing. So forgive me when I admit to being an ignoramus about many things to do with my garden versus the habitat and what is a weed and what is not. However what I do believe that living on Mount Macedon I am literally surrounded by “weeds”. I think the rhododendron has been classed as a weed (??) the white daises that bloom in spring, the daffodils, a plethora of ivy all around. For me the beauty of this area is the mix of native and introduced trees and plants. Unless it really bothers anyone I will continue to nurture my little bit of what for me is paradise!

    1. How about the Alstromeria aurantiaca up there! A terribly invasive, fabulously beautiful weed. What a shame there’s not a movement of flower foragers as there is edible-weed foragers. It could reduce the seed production very significantly (albeit while causing other trampling problems)

  6. Hi, again, Michael,
    You need to come and live in Tasmania where habitat integrity is currently a very hot topic, i.e. The Liberals imminent redrawing of the eastern World Heritage Area boundary and the dismantling of key pieces of the Forests Agreemment.
    That aside I wouldn’t like to see the loss of important examples of key native habitats lost to weed incursions. But one has to keep a perspective on this and keep in mind that this may be a secondary effect following on from other human-induced changes. I personally think that the fight is lost in badly degraded areas and that the focus should be on keeping in tact what is left. Of course there will be many who will disagree with this and locally there are commu ity groups who devote a considerable amount of time to cleaning up the bush.
    What I am not in favor of is government departments actively advocating against the use of perfectly legal exotic ornamentals thru their c community/environment arms. Cheers, Marcus

    1. I must look at some of this info. I’m really interested in how many degrees of integrity are recognised, and the extent to which the presence of another species of weed into an already compromised environment reduces its integrity.

  7. Marcus: “No-one seems to worry about exotic grasses invading every nook and cranny but hey, that’s different …”

    Well some people, like grassland ecologists, do care about that- see Ian Lunt’s blog for example- . Of course grasslands don’t have the same emotional resonance as rainforests, hence the limited public and media interest.

    The issue of weeds is a complicated one and certainly not all weeds are equal. To take just one example, blackberries are a highly invasive weed but they also reduce erosion on overgrazed land and provide protection for native bandicoots against feral predators in various locations. Another example- I used to clear all the Cootamundra Wattle seedlings that popped up on my central Victorian acreage but now I leave them alone as the endangered Swift Parrot, which sometimes frequents my area, forages in their branches in lean years according to a reliable source.

    1. Yes – its all very complicated. And I don’t think that desirable outcomes are realised by oversimplifying, as our authorities do.

  8. I think that part of the ‘weeds in disturbed areas’ problem is that the fringes keep expanding. By that I mean that the disturbed area, often a roadside, usually fringes clean(er) bush. As that fringe becomes weedier and weedier, it starts to expand into the adjacent bush. The Formosa lilies along the roadsides around the NSW Central Coast used to be only in the ditch along the actual road but you can now see them growing several metres back as well. And as our urban expansion fragments our remaining bushland areas, the proportion of weedy fringe to intact bush grows bigger and bigger. Today the roadside, tomorrow The World!

    1. Yep, and it doesn’t help when we carve roads through all our wilderness areas creating highways of disturbance for weed invasion – and then blame the weeds.
      There are weeds – many of them, in fact – that will only invade recently disturbed soil. Many poppies, for instance, hence their symbolic blooming on the graves of our soldiers in the fields of Flanders. When our local railway line had all its timber sleepers replaced with concrete, a great stretch exploded into poppy-bloom the following season. The next season there was one or two. After that, absolutely none.

  9. Interesting post Michael. And what a Pandora’s box of paradox it opens! It calls to mind the whole wilderness debate. One side of this is the wilderness ethic, that retaining tracts of Earth free from the touch of human hands (or feet) is an essential part of human stewardship of the planet, that often carries quasi-spiritual overtones. On the other side is the idea that wilderness is an elitist misanthropic idea that is also a physical impossibility in these day of human induced climate change. As Michael Pollan puts it ‘Creating a landscape that bears no marks of human intervention will require a certain amount of human intervention.’ It is also premised on the idea that our species stands outside of nature, that all that we do to nature is artificial, that is, unnatural.
    So the unintended consequences of our creative engagement with nature in the activity of gardening, weeds escaping into our ecosystems, are seen as some kind of crime against nature by the so called ‘eco-fascists’. This position also sees ‘natural’ ecosystems as what was here prior to European invasion, which places Aboriginal Australians in roughly the same territory as the legal concept of Terra Nullius did for all those years. But when I last looked, ecosystems are considered to be dynamic systems, which change in response to environmental change, including human activity. The question being, is human induced change natural, or artificial? Are we part of nature or not? The way I see it, we are both. We are part of nature by virtue of our biological (ahem) nature, and separated from it by virtue of our culture which is subject to a different form of evolution to that which results from natural selection. And that’s what these environmental weeds are, winners in the natural selection stakes, who outcompete the natives. But then by labelling them weeds and attempting to eradicate them, aren’t we just being true to our human nature? I don’t believe there are black and white certainties in this discussion, just a hell of a lot more than fifty shades of grey. Perhaps so much grey is just lead-ing your beautiful gilded lily. I apologise for turning gold into lead, but I find this boundary between nature and culture the most fascinating of terrains. For myself, I spend far more of my time doing bush regeneration (environmental weed removal) than in my home garden. But then my garden is very small, and I see the bush regeneration as just another form of gardening, i.e human interference with nature, which I passionately love doing.

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