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8 march 2020

Lilies abound right outside my window as I write this, though most of them will bloom a bit later this year. Of course they aren't all true lilies. But lily figures in their names, and often enough, I suppose, in their taxonomy. Day lilies are most represented, in the form of ordinary "ditch lilies" and showier hybrids; but there are also crinums, cannas, copper and rain lilies, oxbloods, amaryllis – and naked ladies.

Lilies, Marcia Reiss explains in her Reaktion volume, are symbolic, artistic, and entertaining. They have featured worldwide as medicines, scents, foods, and ornamentals. There is a long tradition of representing lilies across the arts, a topic that Reiss handles exceptionally well. Lilies have achieved this ubiquity in part thanks to seniority. They are among the longest-cultivated of plants, featuring in art from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia – and one assumes that artistic representations trail botanical uses by quite a few hundreds or even thousands of years.

Lilies are associated with death and birth, with sensuality, motherhood, and virginity. They are the flowers of the Virgin Mary, but also of Lilith. In the semiotic fashion by which the commonest symbols mean everything and nothing, lilies have a head start on most of the "words" in the language of flowers.

Reiss covers myriad lily topics in short compass and with consistent interest. She explores long-abandoned ancient gardens, their footprints still marking the lily beds of classical villas. She looks at sensuous representations of lilies in the art of Georgia O'Keeffe and Robert Mapplethorpe. Lilies demonstrate the changes in botanical illustration, from the stylized images of the late Middle Ages to exhaustive technical depictions that still play a role in botany, long after the rise of photography.

Lilies figure in many a ritual. They are associated with Easter and with Lady Day (the Annunciation, 25 March). But the modern Easter lily, Reiss notes, is forced indoors to make its springtime appearance; in gardens, Easter lilies would bloom naturally in summertime. Reiss devotes several pages to the literally over-the-top Giglio ritual that arose in the Italian town of Nola in late antiquity. The women of the town welcomed a heroic bishop home by waving lilies at him. In annual recreations of the event, the lilies got bigger and bigger, till they took the form of gigantic and frankly phallic towers with lilies plastered all over them. The tradition continues in Brooklyn to this day.

You can eat some lilies. Some are deadly poison (retiring lilies of the valley, oddly enough, and the more spectacular gloriosa lily). But daylilies are a standard ingredient in mu shu pork and other Chinese dishes. I have generally used the wilted buds of daylilies in cooking, because they're not much good for display at that point, and would just fall on the ground anyway; removing them doesn't harm the plant. But Reiss suggests that you can also eat tubers and even leaves of daylilies. Just don't eat the pricey cultivars. Ditch lilies are even tastier.

I often add citations from poetry to my reviews of Reaktion books, but Reiss covers lily poetry so thoroughly that I am at a loss to improve on it. She touches on Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, on Tennyson, on Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver. Lilies don't appear much in popular song, that I can recall. Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne wrote "Look to the Lilies" for the musical version of Lilies of the Field, but I only remember that title song because the show opened and vanished at the exact time in my life (1970) when I followed the Broadway stage with attention most 11-year-olds were reserving for football. Speaking of which, googling "Lilien-Lied" brings up the club song of the German football club Darmstadt 98, whose nickname is the Lilies. Not many American football clubs are called "Lilies." Sometimes you can best express toughness by appropriating an image of fragility.

Though of course one of the most powerful of all European empires, Bourbon France, made the lily a symbol for absolute monarchy. Lilies are wispy and ephemeral, and they are the emblem of kings, and kings of kings, and the King of Kings. As Marcia Reiss continually notes, lilies mean it all.

Reiss, Marcia. Lily. London: Reaktion, 2013.