Lily Flowers and Their Symbolic Meanings

In the language of flowers, the Lily has long held the symbolic meaning of fertility, purity, and remembrance. They are a time-honored inclusion in memorial arrangements and are considered spiritually symbolic of the circle of life. Individual types of lily flowers and the respective colors of the petals may hold additional meanings. Join me as I explore the rich historical meaning and symbolism of lily flowers and their cultural significance worldwide today.

Colorful Lily Flowers in Bloom

History and Significance of the Lily Flower

The history of the lily takes us back to around 1580 BC in Crete. Here, in Greek mythology, the lily is believed to have been created from the breast milk of Hera, the wife of Zeus, king of the gods on Mount Olympus. It symbolized both purity and immense beauty.

Lilies still hold great value in Greek culture. To this day, brides wear crowns made of lilies for their beauty and symbolism. The significance of lilies wasn’t only limited to Greece, as both the Old and New Testaments include a reference to the lily flower.

Lily Flowers in Ancient Times:

In ancient Egypt, the lily was associated with fertility and rebirth, often depicted in art and burial artifacts to signify the afterlife and resurrection.

The Greeks and Romans also revered the lily, associating it with their goddesses of beauty and fertility. It was used in ceremonies and included in floral garlands.

Christianity:

In Christian symbolism, the white lily, often called the Madonna lily, is closely associated with the Virgin Mary. It represents her purity, chastity, and divine motherhood. The lily is frequently depicted in Annunciation scenes, where the angel Gabriel presents Mary with a lily, signifying her purity and role as the mother of Jesus.

Interestingly, the lily is also symbolic of the resurrection of Christ, with its bulbous root representing burial and the blooming flower illustrating life after death.

Weddings and Funerals:

Lilies are commonly used in both weddings and funerals, representing purity and the soul’s return to innocence at death.

Eastern Cultures:

In Chinese culture, the lily is a symbol of summer and abundance. The word for lily, “百合” (bǎihé), sounds similar to a phrase that means “100 years of love,” making lilies a popular flower in weddings, symbolizing a lifetime of love and partnership.

In Japan, the lily, particularly the Casablanca lily, is admired for its beauty and fragrance, often associated with purity and renewal.

Victorian Language of Flowers:

During the Victorian era, when the language of flowers became a popular means of communication, the lily carried various meanings depending on its type. The white lily symbolized purity and sweetness, the tiger lily conveyed pride or prosperity, and the lily of the valley signified the return of happiness.

Cultural Significance of Lilies

While most cultures viewed the lily as a symbol of purity, other cultures took the lily as a symbol of death and mourning. In these cultures, lilies used to be put on the graves of saints, martyrs, and innocent children.

The beauty of the lily flower is so enchanting that Augustine Henry, a notable explorer from the Victorian era, ended his search for medicinal plants to dedicate his explorations to finding the lily flower. To honor his efforts, the Orange Lilium henryi, also known as Henry’s lily, was named after him.

Augustine Henry wasn’t the only person enchanted by the beauty of the lily flower. Ernest Henry Wilson, the well-known British explorer and plant collector, searched far and wide in China for lilies. E.H. Wilson’s quest resulted in him finding the White Lilium regale, which you may know as the Regal Lily.

Lily Flower Meaning by Color

Along with their symbolism, different colored lilies each have a different meaning in the language of flowers.

White Lilies

The white lily, aligning with the history of the flower, represents purity or rebirth. They are ideal flowers for weddings as part of a bouquet or decor.

In a contrasting message, white lilies are also a flower of mourning, forming part of funeral arrangements or used as sympathy flowers.

Madonna lilies are also called white lilies for their connection to the Catholic Church. Many religious paintings use white lilies to represent the purity of the Virgin Mary.

Red Lilies

Much like a red rose, the red lily is associated with romantic love and passion. They make lovely alternatives to a rose bouquet as a gift for Valentine’s Day. Combined with white lilies to symbolize commitment, they symbolize true and long-lasting love.

Pink Lilies

One of the most popular color choices, pink lilies embody friendship, compassion, and admiration. They make an excellent birthday flower or Mother’s Day gift for the special people in your life.

Yellow Lilies

Thanks to its bright colors, the yellow lily has many positive meanings. They are associated with happiness, loyalty, and new beginnings. Give these flowers to someone starting a new chapter in their life.

Green Lilies

Although not a standard color, the green lily is an ideal gift when wishing someone good luck. They symbolize renewal and growth, and their color is linked to wishes of success and financial prosperity.

True green lilies are quite rare, but green Calla lilies are more common. The calla lily flower has a slightly different meaning to the true lily, used in religion to represent resurrection as a symbol of life. Much like the contradiction within the true lily meaning, they are also a symbol of death.

Orange Lilies

Fiery and bright, the orange lily symbolizes courage and confidence. The most popular of these is the Tiger lily (Lilium lancifolium). Great gifts for congratulatory events; they are perfect for graduations, new homes, and new jobs.

Purple Lilies

Purple lilies are not as common as the other flower types but carry no less significance. This color represents peace, royalty, and spiritual enlightenment.

Stargazer Lilies

Pink and white Stargazer Lilies in bloom
Stargazer Lilies

Stargazer lilies were introduced around 40 years ago and still, to this day, remain one of the most beloved lilies by plant enthusiasts. The flower blends a breathtaking array of colors that combine white, crimson, and pink, and bright red freckles are sprinkled on its petals.

Calla Lilies

Calla Lilies are native to South Africa. Although not true lilies, they remain some of the most beautiful flowers you can find and are wildly popular. They’re available in colors like white, pink, and yellow.

Pink Calla Lilies
Calla Lilies

Tiger Lilies

Tiger Lilies are a long-lived species of lily native to China, Japan, and Korea. The orange blooms and black freckles grant this species a very unique look. They’re also the official zodiac flower for Aries.

Orange Tiger Lily flowers in bloom
Tiger Lily

Turk’s Cap Lilies

These lilies tend to be early-summer bloomers, making them perfect for accenting perennial gardens. It is one of the most exotic blooms in the lily family, radiating beautiful colors and remarkable fragrances. 

Pink Turk's Cap Lily flowers in bloom
Turk’s Cap Lily

Royal Lilies

Regale Lilies often bloom during mid-to-late summer. These are extremely perfumed flowers that will make your garden or home smell like heaven.

Pink and white Royal Trumpet Lilies in bloom
Royal Trumpet Lily

Oriental Lilies

The Oriental Lily is one of the lily family’s most reliable cut flowers. Its performance is not hindered even in colder conditions, and it is grown extensively in many regions.

Yellow Lilium Yelloween Lilies in bloom
Lilium Yelloween Lilies

Asiatic Lilies

This lily boasts colorful blossoms that look just as sweet as they sound. The Asiatic Lily is an early-summer bloomer with large up-facing flowers.

Pink and white Lollypop Asiatic Lilies in bloom
Lollypop Asiatic Lilies

Wrapping Up

The lily flower stands as a powerful symbol of purity, renewal, and transformation across various cultures and historical contexts. Its elegant form and captivating fragrance have made it a beloved subject in art, literature, and religious texts, transcending mere botanical interest. In Christian symbolism, the lily is often associated with the Virgin Mary, representing her purity and divine motherhood, while in other traditions, it symbolizes the soul’s journey from earthly passion to spiritual enlightenment.

Contributing Editor | madison@petalrepublic.com | Full Bio

Madison is a writer and editor with a Bachelor’s degree in History and Political Science. She writes and photographs for various online and print publications in the gardening sphere and is the author of the book The Next-Generation Gardener.

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