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Originally published Friday, July 19, 2013 at 11:04 AM

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Martagon lilies are the go-to for gardens with some shade

They can be slightly temperamental at first, sulking for a year underground, or not blooming the first year; fall planting helps them settle in sooner.

Special to The Seattle Times

Local news partner - Plant Talk

Valerie Easton writes in her blog about gardens and the people who make them.

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I HADN'T EVER heard of martagons until a year or so ago, and now they're the new, new thing in lilies. And for good reason. Not only are martagons tall, stately and stunning, but they prefer at least a half-day of shade. Which means they thrive in the woodland conditions most lilies shun. Now gardeners with mature trees have a go-to lily.

And while martagons are extravagantly beautiful, with the same freckled, recurved petals and pollen-drenched stamen we love in more familiar kinds of lilies, they're really quite different creatures.

Martagons flower before summer heat ramps up and die back earlier than Asiatic lilies. They take longer to mature. Dianna Gibson of B&D Lilies in Port Townsend says that from seed to first flower can take more than seven years. Which is why martagon bulbs are more expensive than Asiatic lily bulbs.

Gibson strongly advises planting martagons in late autumn. They can be slightly temperamental at first, sulking for a year underground, or not blooming the first year; fall planting helps them settle in sooner. Like all bulbs, martagons rot in heavy soil. If you have soggy soil, raised beds or big pots may be the answer.

The first time I understood the magnificence of martagons was in Nancy Heckler's woodland garden in Indianola. She grows them in clusters near the front of her house, and emerging from among hydrangeas, mock orange and shrubby dogwoods along the edge of her woodland.

"Martagons are tolerant of some shade, but in my experience prefer to have a half day of morning sun," advises Heckler. "They don't bloom well in dense shade." But neither do they like hot afternoon sun.

For those of us enamored of the Oriental lilies' swoon-inducing perfume, how do martagons measure up in the fragrance department? Heckler says many are fragrant, although their smell borders on the musky.

Heckler's tips: Place the bulbs at least 4 inches apart and plant them at least 4 to 6 inches deep. Water them regularly, especially where they're competing for moisture with trees and shrubs. She plants in clumps of at least three, more if you can afford it. And even if the lilies are going to grow 5 feet tall, she plants them close to paths. "Having a martagon lily that you can walk right up to is the way to go," Heckler explains. Growing the lilies up through shrubs saves you the trouble of staking; the shrub branches hold the martagons upright.

And if you can't resist bringing these exquisite flowers indoors, cut as little of the stem as possible, no more than a third of the stalk.

A passionate martagon fancier, Heckler even loves the foliage on these lilies. "The leaves are beautiful whorls, so even after they're done blooming, the little towers of foliage create a pretty vertical accent for a while." You also want to let the foliage die back on its own to feed the bulbs so your martagons will come back even stronger next year.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.

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