Plant of the Week: Lilium regale

Oscar Wilde adored lilies. He gave them away extravagantly, and he would wear a gilded lily in preference even to a green carnation. His contemporaries picture him as a vast, sensual creature, swaying about with a purple complexion and replete with heavy, decadent perfume. Such is the regal lily.

Wildely improbable as it seems, Oscar never saw Lilium regale. It did not reach England until 1912, by which time he had been dead 12 years. The person who brought it to us was E.H. Wilson, as unlike Wilde as anyone could be. He was a self-educated garden hand from Chipping Norton. He gives an account of the plant in A Naturalist in Western China, saying that you can walk for days through valleys dominated by its flowers and its perfume, and then describes how natives prepare a sort of sauerkraut-like pickle from the flowers of the closely related L.sargentiae.

It was some time afterwards that he told his own story in Plant Hunting. It was October 1910, and he returned to the remote mountainsides where he had marked specimens of the lilies to collect seed and bulbs. There was a rock-fall, and a boulder smashed his leg. He gave instructions for the leg to be splinted using a camera tripod, and then spotted a train of fifty mules coming along the precarious narrow mountain track. He was laid across the track and each mule had to step over him. “Then it was that I realised the size of the mule’s hoof,” he remarks laconically.

For months he lay in remote China, with osteomyelits and even gangrene setting in, making debridement without anaesthetic a frequent necessity. He survived, leg and all, and later limped through many more plant-hunting trips, though never again in China. He and his lilies reached Boston, Mass. the following year. Although “Chinese Wilson” introduced more wonderful plants to the West than any other man, Lilium regale remained his favourite.