The Friends of the Wildflower Garden, Inc.

Plants of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden

The oldest public wildflower garden in the United States


Common Name
Turk's-cap Lily


Scientific Name
Lilium superbum L.


Plant Family
Lily (Liliaceae)

Garden Location
Woodland & Upland


Prime Season
Early Summer to Late Summer

Structure of Lilies


L. superbum and L. michiganense are very similar perennial forbs. These tall lilies are identified by the backward curving tepals. This completely reveals the stamens and the pollen.

The stems are smooth, round and green, unbranched below the inflorescence. Height can reach 5 to 7 feet and often taller.

Leaves form evenly distributed whorls on the stem and are alternate on the upper side branches. Leaves are lanceolate in shape, with smooth edges and parallel veins. They can be 4 to 18x longer than wide, are held horizontally, with the upper whorls upward ascending, and then drooping at the pointed tips. Surfaces are without hair. The leaf whorls number 6 to 24 with 3 to 20 leaves per whorl, 3 to 9 being typical. Old mature plants will have the most leaves per whorl as will plants with good moist and sunny locations.

The inflorescence consists of long stalked flowers, appearing as singles on in an umbel of 2 or 3, branching from the top of the stem and the upper leaf axils - 1 to 22 flowers with buds more triangular in cross-section; occasionally a plant can produce many more flowers.

The flowers are pendant and not fragrant. The 3 sepals and 3 petals look the same (commonly called 'tepals') and as the flower opens they flare outward and then reflex with the tips frequently touching; these are yellow-green near the base and then shade to reddish orange. The 3 outer tepals have 2 faint ridge lines on the backside. The tepals reflex so much that the nectaries are exposed giving the resemblance of a yellow-green star in the base. The tepals have darker colored maroon speckles. There are 6 stamens, strongly exserted beyond the tepals with anthers up to 1/2 inch long. The filaments remain parallel to the style for much of their length before spreading widely with anthers that are a darker magenta to purple. The single style, is pale green with spotted color near the tip.

Seed: Curiously, when the seed head forms, it will turn upward as it matures. Inside are hundreds of wafer thin disc shaped seeds. These are hard to start as they must have a warm moist period followed by a cold moist period before planting. Sown outside they will germinate in the next year. Pollination is primarily by swallowtail butterflies.


Habitat: These plants are becoming uncommon in the wild due to cultivation and roadside mowing. Like most lilies the plants grow from a bulb with offsetting rhizomes. The bulb is whitish and the rhizomes branch. Sites that are sunny and moist such as moist meadows and thickets, rich wood openings and the edges of marshes are preferred.

Names: The genus Lilium is derived from the Greek word 'lirion' for lily. The species name superbum, means 'superb'. The accepted author of the plant classification for L. superbum - 'L.', refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy.

Comparisons: There are several other lilies that have reflexed petals and sepals of this color range. The ones most often confused are first -the Tiger Lily, Lilium lancifolium. There the most easily distinguishing characteristics are lanceolate shaped leaves that are alternate, not in a whorl and the presence of dark bulbils in the leaf axils on the stem. The closest confusing relative is the Michigan, L. michiganense. It is usually shorter, has fewer flowers in the inflorescence, up to 11, with buds that are more round in cross-section. It has fewer leaf whorls (4 to 12) with 3 to 13 leaves per whorl. In the flower, the tepals reflex less leaving the nectaries at the base of the tepals hidden. It has a more yellowish bulb with rhizomes that do not branch but grows in similar habitat.

See bottom of page for notes on the Garden's planting history, distribution in Minnesota and North America, lore and other references.

Turks cap lily inflorescence Cary George with lilies

Above: The inflorescence can be a single or a group of 2 or 3 long stalked flowers at the top of the stem and from the upper leaf axils. 2nd photo - Defying the normal, these lilies shown in the Upland Garden in the summer of 2000 with former Gardener Cary George, greatly exceeded the average height of the species. Both photos of Turk's-cap Lily. The stamens of L. superbum remain close to the style until spreading at the anthers, which are darker than those of L. michiganense.

Below: Leaf whorls of large mature plants - lower whorls have more leaves. 1st photo - Michigan Lily, 2nd photo - Turk's-cap Lily which has more leaves per whorl.

Leaf whorl turks cap leaf whorls

Below: 1st photo - The tepals of Michigan Lily, L. michiganense, are yellow-orange near their base without the green star-like base of L. superbum (2nd photo) and the stamens spread further and begin spreading nearer the base of the filaments. Note that the style is red in the Michigan and pale green in the Turk's-cap.

corolla of Michigan Lily Turk's-ca; lily flower

Below: Differences in the shape of the flower buds, while not precise is noticeable. 1st photo - the more rounded bud of Michigan Lily. 2nd photo - the more triangular bud of Turk's-cap Lily.

Michigan Lily flower bud Turk's-cap lily flower bud

Below: 1st photo - The upward turned seed heads of late fall. They will remain throughout the winter if the stalk is not blown down. 2nd photo - Each seed pod has several stacked vertical rows of wafer thin seeds.

Turks cap lily seed pods turks cap lily seed

Below: A stand of Turk's-cap Lily in the Upland Garden.

Turk's Cap lily group
Turk's-cap lily


Notes: Eloise Butler noted it's seedpods in the Garden in September 1908 and planted more the same year, obtained from a Pennsylvania Nursery. As this was the first time it appears in her log, why was this non-native in the Garden? Had it been planted prior in Wirth Park and seeds ended up in the Garden? OR did she misidentify the seed pod and instead it was our native Michigan Lily? She logged planting a dozen bulbs in 1910 that were obtained from Northrup King (Seed and Nursery Company) and she planted it again in 1911, '13, '14 and '17, the latter found within Glenwood Park which partially surrounded the Garden. As it is not native there, she either mis-identified it or it had been planted there and that may explain its presence in 1908. On Oct. 6, 1917 she planted more from Kelsey's Nursery on the East Coast; and more in 1925, '27, '28, and '32. Curator Martha Crone planted it in the Garden in June 1946. L. superbum is not native to the state but widely introduced for ornamental purposes. It is native the the SE Quadrant of the U.S. It has been replanted as recently as 2009 by Curator Susan Wilkins.

Only two lily species are native to Minnesota: L. michiganense, Michigan Lily; and L. philadelphicum, Wood Lily.

Eloise Butler wrote the following: "Of our three native lilies the Turk’s-cap, although not the lily of Palestine, may be said to surpass the glory of Solomon, as it is arrayed in recurved orange-red petals flecked with spots of purple. Sometimes as many as forty blossoms are borne on a single plant." Published July 16, 1911, Minneapolis Sunday Tribune.

References and site links

References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.

graphicIdentification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.