LILY, name of herbaceous and bulbous flowering plants of the genus Lilium L. of Liliaceae, the lily family.  The lily, called susan in Persian and Arabic (Zāhedi, p. 110, Dehḵodā, s.v.), is from Old English lilie, Latin lilia (plural of lilium), cognate with Gk. leirion (Skeat, p. 341).  Lily is used in the Old Testament to translate Hebrew šošanna, a term derived from Susa, Persian Šuš, the city in southwest Iran that was the ancient capital of the Elamite kingdom and Achaemenid empire (Elwell, II, p. 1714; Hoiberg and Pappas, XI, p. 416).

Lilium bulbs have numerous imbricate fleshy scales, without a protective outer coating. Lily bulbs may be kept in cool storage for a few months, with special care to keep them fresh and moist (Brenzel, p. 355).  The stem is often multi-foliate at several levels.  The flowers are large, funnel-shaped, with six petals and six anthers, borne in racemes or umbellate inflorescences, or even terminal and solitary.  They are mostly white, with the inner side being often spotted (Dahlgren, p. 237).

Most species of Lilium are ornamentals.  L. candidum L. or Madonna lily, with pure white and fragrant flowers in wild form, is protected by law in most of its natural geographic distribution (Feinbrum-Dothan, p. 44).  Two species of lily exist in Iran and Afghanistan: L. Ledebourii (Baker) Boiss. with panicle inflorescence and white tepals, 50-60 mm long, is endemic of Gilan, at the southern coast of the Caspian Sea (Rechinger et al., CLXV, p. 58).  Pārsā (p. 187) refers to this species as L. monadelphum M. B., L. polyphyllum D. Don, with verticillate inflorescence, sordid yellow tepals, 30-40 mm long, which exists from the western Himalayas to eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan (Rechinger et al., CLXV, p. 59).

Requirements for the culture of lilies are well-drained soil, ample moisture, and adequate sun. While lilies have been traditionally propagated asexually by bulbs, their sexual reproduction by seed and artificial hybridization has enabled breeders to raise hundreds of cultivars.  Lilies may suffer from fungal diseases such as leaf blight, basal rot, and foot and root rot, or from a serious viral or mosaic infection. The latter is cureless but may be prevented by destroying affected plants and using healthy bulbs (Brenzel, pp. 354-55).  Today, the lily is a popular cut flower worldwide (Jefferson-Brown and Howland, p. 8). 

There is ample evidence that lilies are among the oldest cultivated plants, and the Madonna lily, L. candidum, is one of the oldest domesticated flowers (McGeorge, pp. 8, 11; Bryan, p. 185; Simpson and Weiner, p. 953; Hoiberg and Pappas, VII, p. 357).  Excavation and discoveries have shown that lilies were depicted or painted on vases, murals, monuments, and tombs in ancient times (McGeorge, pp. 8, 11; Hoiberg and Pappas, VII, p. 357). There is a myth that the lily sprang from Eve’s tears of repentance when she was expelled from the Garden of Eden.  The Madonna lily has been also associated with the Christian church and the Virgin Mary, as a symbol of purity and whiteness (Hoiberg and Pappas, VII, p. 357; Simpson and Weiner, pp. 953-54; McGeorge, pp. 11, 12).

For centuries, Persian poets have likened the lily’s petal to the human tongue (Grami, pp. 203-7).  They have used the terms ten- and hundred-tongued lily as a metaphor for those who are eloquent as well as those who have tongues but keep secrets, such as the following (collected in Grami, pp. 199-207):

Dah-zabān hamčo susani likan,
bar-e to rāzhā bovand iman.
You’re ten-tongued like the lily,
but secrets are safe with you.
(Kamāl-al-Din Esmāʾil, d. 635/1237)

Šokr-e Izad hami konad susan;
ān yakigu-ye dah-zabān negarid.
The lily keeps praising God;
notice the one with ten tongues praising One.
(ʿObayd Zākāni, d. 771/1370)

Besān-e susan agar dah-zabān šavad Ḥāfeż,
čo ḡonča piš-e to-aš mohr bar dahān bāšad.
Even if Ḥāfeż had ten tongues like the lily,
his lips would still be sealed, like a rosebud, with you. 
(Ḥāfeż, d. 792/1390)

Ḵāmuš šod az ḵajlat-e goftār-e to Ṣāʾeb,
susan ke sarāpāy zabān ast dar in bāḡ.
Ṣaʾeb! Even the lily, which is all tongue in this garden,
became speechless with embarrassment when she heard your poems.
(Ṣāʾeb Tabrizi, d. 1081/1470).

The lily’s sharp, pointed petals have been likened to a sword and a dagger in Persian poetry:

Zabān-e ābdār-e susan-e tar,
nemāyad az kaji šamšir o ḵanjar.
The lustrous tongue of the fresh lily,
looks curved like a sword and dagger.
(Helāli Jaḡatāʾi, d. 936/1529)

Kešam ḵanjar čo susan bar tan-e ḵˇiš;
čo gol dar ḵun kešam pirāhan-e ḵˇiš.
I will stab myself with a dagger like a lily;
I will soak my shirt in blood like a red rose.
(Jāmi, d. 898/1492).

Lily and garlic are both white, but the garlic’s odor differs from the lily’s fragrance (Grami, p. 200).  The Persian phrase susan o sir indicates a sharp contrast between these two things:

Agar susan hami ḵˇāhi nešāndan,
naḵost az jā-ye susan sir barkan!
Before you plant a lily,
first uproot the garlic from its site
(Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow; d. 481/1088). 

Selling garlic for the price of lily is an expression implying cheating, dishonesty:

In jahān rā farib besyār ast;
beforošad ba nerḵ-e susan sir.
“This world is very deceptive;
it sells garlic for the price of lily
(Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow).

Manučehri Dāmḡāni (d. 432/1040) compared the peacock’s toe to the shape of the lily’s petals (Čang-aš čo barg-e susan o pāy-aš čo barg-e ney) and the parrot’s tail to a bundle of petals (Dom-e har ṭuṭiak-i čun waraq-e susan-e tar; Grami, p. 201).

Many Persian poets have referred to the body of the beloved as susan-bar (bar here meaning “bosom”), which has been recorded as one simple word, susanbar.  This has led to the term being defined in various Persian dictionaries as a plant’s name and used interchangeably with sisanbar, a plant of the mint family; but susanbar has not been used as a botanical name in Persian poetry (Grami, pp. 201, 480).


K. N. Brenzel, ed., Western Garden, Menlo Park, Calif., 1997. 

John E. Bryan, J. Bryan on Bulbs, New York, 1994. 

Rolf M. T. Dahlgren, Harnold T. Clifford, and Peter F. Yeo, The Families of the Monocotyledons: Structure, Evolution and Taxonomy, Berlin and New York, 1985. 

Walter A. Elwell, ed., Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1988.  Naomi Feinbrum-Dothan, Flora Palestina, part 4, Jerusalem, 1986. 

Bahram Grami, Gol o gīāh dar hezār sāl šeʿr-e fārsi: Tašbihāt wa esteʿārāt, Tehran, 2010, pp. 199-207. 

D. H. Hoiberg and Th. Pappas, eds., The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed., 32 vols., Chicago, 2005. 

Michael Jefferson-Brown and Harris Howland, The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Lilies, Portland, Or., 1995. 

Pamela McGeorge, Lilies, New York, 2004. 

Aḥmad Pārsā, Flore de l’Iran V: HydrocharitaceaeEquisetaceae, Tehran, 1950. 

Karl Heinz Rechinger et al., “Liliaceae II,” in Karl Heinz Rechinger, ed., Flora Iranica: Flora des Iranischen Hochlandes und der umrahmenden Gebirge, Graz, Austria, 1990. 

J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary VIII, 2nd ed., Oxford, 1989. 

Walter W. Skeat, An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Oxford, 1956.  Esmāʿil Zāhedi, Važa-nāma-ye giāhi, Tehran, 1958.

(Ahmad Aryavand and Bahram Grami)

Originally Published: June 29, 2015

Last Updated: September 28, 2015

Cite this entry:

Ahmad Aryavand and Bahram Grami, "LILY," Encyclopædia Iranicaonline edition, 2015, available at (accessed on 29 June 2015).