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Gardening with Galligan: The lily’s place in history

CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO | Garden lilies in all their springtime glory.

CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO | Garden lilies in all their springtime glory.

Regardless of one’s religion, there is something about spring that is religious. Or at least it feels that way. It always makes me think of that Bible verse, Matthew: 6:28, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

So let’s consider those lilies. While we’re waiting for it to warm up just a little more.

No one has ever really been certain what flowers Matthew thought Jesus was referring to — all translations are simply traditional, which is to say, generic but non-specific. R.T. France, a biblical scholar and not a naturalist, tells us that “flowers were less specifically defined in that era, and ‘lily’ could be a word referring to any showy variety.” He goes on to point out that perhaps the meaning is simply “flowers in general, rather than a specific variety.”

Hmmm, that sounds to me like begging the issue. I would think it more likely that if Matthew said “lily,” there would be something “lily-like” about the blossom.

According to Harold Fowler, also a biblical scholar, but again not a naturalist, “scholars have proposed a number of different flowers that Jesus could be here referring to.” Although he does point out what any horticulturalist would have begun with — “of the field.” Clearly, the allusion is to a flower that grows wild — or seems to.

Let’s look at some of his candidates. He begins with the autumn crocus, also called “meadow saffron.” This flower is much like a regular crocus with simply another time of bloom. The plant does thrive in “temperate areas,” which the Holy Land certainly is, so indeed would be a candidate. Although, I think, given how short crocuses are, that a taller plant would be a better guess. And there’s nothing lily-like that I can see about a crocus.

He then goes on to mention both the iris and the gladiolus. The iris has both sepals, known  as “falls” and three petals, called “standards,” which stand erect. Now that might be considered lily-like. The gladiolus, a member of the iris family, is sometimes called the “Sword lily,” so someone thought it was lily-like, but its habit of bloom, the way the blossoms are bunched together, is very un-lily like, I think.

He also cites anemone coronaria, which indeed is indigenous to the region. But those blooms are perfectly flat, almost daisy-like. In Hebrew, the anemone is called “Calanit,” which means “bride.” Presumably the beauty of a bride on her wedding day is being invoked. Anemone coronaria is the national flower of Israel, and if it were even a little bit like a lily, that would move it close to the top of choices. But it isn’t.

His last candidate, and mine as well, is the narcissus, well-known in the Mediterranean, and particularly the daffodil. This plant naturalizes more easily, I think, than any of the others. Remember Wordsworth? “Ten thousand saw I at a glance, Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.” And they seem to me with their flat petals and central corona to be quite lily-like.
I’m happy to note that Louis Tiffany (the son of the jeweler, Charles Tiffany) — the stained glass designer — and I are of the same mind.

Look at his “Field of Lilies,” designed in 1910, meant to be installed in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan.

What do you think?