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What is a Fire Lily?

By M. Haskins
Updated May 16, 2024
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The name "fire lily" is commonly used for two different types of flowers. One is the species Lilium bulbiferum, also known as orange lily or tiger lily, which originated in Europe and has large, bright orange flowers. It is a member of the Liliaceae family, or true lily family. "Fire lily" also can refer to a genus, or group of species, of flowers called Cyrtanthus that are not true lilies at all but instead belong to the Amaryllis family. These fire lilies are native to southern and eastern Africa.

The Lilium bulbiferum type of fire lily is a perennial, deciduous flower that grows from a bulb. It is a common garden and ornamental plant in many parts of the world and is especially popular in Europe, Asia and North America. This lily also is grown commercially for use as a cut flower. Its popularity among gardeners is both because it is fairly easy to grow and because of its showy, orange flowers that have inspired its various names. It should not be confused with another lily, the Lilium lancifolium, which is more commonly called a tiger lily and whose flowers have dark markings that the fire lily lacks.

Fire lily bulbs should be planted in the fall, in well-drained soil that can be light, medium or heavy. The plant flowers during the summer months and grows to be about 4 feet (1.2 m) tall. It prefers to grow in light shade or part sunlight and requires regular watering. Its bulb actually is edible when cooked, and in Japan, the plants are even grown for that reason. The flavor is considered sweet and mealy and reminiscent of potato.

The other kind of fire lilies are the approximately 60 species belonging to the Cyrtanthus genus. Some of these have very brightly colored flowers, but their name is not derived from their color. They are named fire lilies because several species will flower very rapidly after being subjected to natural fires: notably, some species are able to flower only after a fire. Like the true lilies, they are perennials and grow from bulbs. The most well-known variety is a scarlet form of the species Cyrtanthus elatus, also known as Scarborough lily or George lily, which is commonly grown for its cut flowers.

In the wild, these fire lilies can be found in various kinds of habitats and vary greatly in appearance and growing requirements. Some are relatively easy to grow in a garden or in containers, and others are extremely difficult to raise. The plants usually require very well-drained soil that contains a lot of rotted organic material such as manure or compost. They also commonly prefer light shade and often require watering all year round, even when the plant has wilted and the bulb is dormant.

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