Indestructible ‘Black Beauty’ Lily

Though gardeners are drawn to ‘Black Beauty’ lily because it’s drop-dead gorgeous, with dark raspberry flowers elegantly edged in silver, once they grow it they love it even more because it’s so incredibly tough and carefree. In fact, lily experts call it “indestructible.” It’s that perfect combination of beauty and brawn that has led us to honor ‘Black Beauty’ lily as our 2003 fall-planted “Heirloom Bulb of the Year.”

Our previous Bulbs of the Year have been mostly Victorian rarities in danger of extinction. ‘Black Beauty’, on the other hand, dates to 1957 and though it’s beginning to drop from mainstream sources, it’s still widely available. So why honor it? “We followed our hearts on this one,” says owner Scott Kunst. “As we talked about all the great heirloom bulbs we might celebrate, we kept coming back to how spectacular ‘Black Beauty’ is and saying ‘too bad it’s not that old or endangered.’ Finally we decided if we all loved it so much and thought it belonged in everyone’s garden, it didn’t really matter if it’s only 45 years old [in 2003] and not yet on the edge of doom.”

‘Black Beauty’ grows a dramatic five to eight feet tall yet rarely needs any support. The dark raspberry petals of its ten to forty lightly fragrant, turk’s-cap flowers sweep back like the wings of a hawk and each is trimmed with silver. Hardy in zones 5a through 8a (or 10b on the West Coast), it’s wonderfully healthy and long-lived in sun or light shade and unlike many lilies it’s perfectly happy in soils that range from acid to alkaline — as long as they’re well-drained. In fact, it’s so tough that researchers say even the voracious New England lily beetle leaves it alone. Its enduring success in gardens across the country made it the very first lily voted into the North American Lily Society’s Hall of Fame.

‘Black Beauty’ was one of many extraordinary lilies bred by Leslie Woodriff, an American hybridizer who shook up the lily world by making crosses that most people considered impossible. Its parents were two wild lilies from Asia that had never been crossed before, the lovely, fragrant, pink-and-white Lilium speciosum rubrum and the graceful, lime-tolerant, virus-proof L. henryi. Woodriff went on to create two other Hall of Fame lilies, ‘Gold Eagle’ and ‘White Henryi’, before introducing his masterpiece, the ground-breaking ‘Stargazer’, which is currently the most widely grown lily in the world.

“But ‘Black Beauty’ is better in the garden,” Kunst says. “It blooms more and lives forever.” Tough, long-lived, and gorgeous — who could ask for anything more?