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Herb Gallery

Bai He (Lilium lancifolium)

  • Botanical name: Lilium lancifolium
  • Common name: Lily bulb
  • Literal name translation: hundred meetings
  • Family: Liliaceae, lily family
  • Part used in Chinese medicine: bulb
  • Major Chinese medicine actions:
  • Nourishes lung yin, stops cough, clears heat, calms spirit
lilium lancifolium
Baihe Yellow Lilium Lancifolium
Bai He Lilium Brownii

Photo Credits: (top to bottom)
Photo 1: Lilium lancifolium; 08/2008; author C. Micleu; permission Jade Institute
Photo 2: Lilium lancifolium; 08/2006; author Jerzy Opiołą; permission under GFDL
Photo 3: Lilium brownii; 07/2006; author Denis Barthel; permission under GFDL

Growing and Propagation

The plants prefer moist, acidic soil, but can tolerate some lime. They do best in well-drained soil enriched with organic matter, planted in full sun or light shade, with the base of the plant in the shade. They bloom in mid-summer and the upper leaf margins produce small dark-purplish black bulbils at the axils. Plants are hardy in USDA zones 2 to 7. All lilies require a cold dormant period and do not thrive well in zones 9-10 unless they are subjected to a period of refrigeration.

Lillies can be propagated by division, by planting stem bulblets, or planting the bulbils. They will divide and propagate themselves if left alone but the clump may also be lifted with a fork and gently pulled apart into sections for replanting. When digging lilies for division, there will be clusters of small bulblets found along the underground part of the stem. These bulblets are formed every year and are the means by which the plant self-propagates. In the fall, these may be carefully detached, along with any little roots that might have been produced, and planted in a bed with soil high in organic matter and good drainage.

The small black “beads” on the stems of the lilies, called bulbils, can also be used to propagate lilies. The bulbils should be gathered in the late summer when they large and ripe, then planted in furrows like peas. In one to two years, they will produce good-sized bulbs that can be replanted in a more permanent location. By this method, it takes about 3 years to grow mature plants that will produce blooms.

Harvesting and Preparation

For medicinal use, the lily bulbs should be harvested in the fall. For medicinal use, good quality Bai He consists of white bulb scales that are hard and fleshy.

Standard Medicinal Species:
Lilium lancifolium
Lilium brownii
Lilium pumilium

Acceptable Alternate Species:
Lilium davidii
Lilium concolor
Lilium longiflorum
Lilium distichum
Lilium speciosum var. gloriosoides


This lily grows wild in many regions of China as well as Japan and Korea. The main species originally grown for medicinal use was the white-flowered Lilium brownii, a type of trumpet lily (bottom photo). These were grown in Xuanzhou and called southern lily (nan bai he) or white flower lily (bai hua bai he). This is still an acceptable species for use in Chinese medicine, but Lilium lancifolium, known as “tiger lily”, is more commonly cultivated in recent times.

The tiger lily was introduced to the West in the early 1800s and is now widely cultivated in gardens for its pretty flowers. Its Chinese name Bai He means “hundred meetings”, referring to the many tightly overlapping scales that form the bulb. It is considered an auspicious symbol of friendship and harmony for this reason.

Lily bulbs are sweet and can be eaten dried or fresh, considered a good food for famine times. In China, the bulb scales are commonly cooked in water with sugar, but they may also be baked, grated, or ground into flour. They are traditionally eaten in the summer season as they have a cooling and moistening effect on the body.

The plant is vigorous, forming a clump that can eventually bear up to 40 unscented flowers on stems that grow 2-5 feet high. Large masses of these lilies swaying in the breeze, growing wild in fields in China, have been described as “bringing a painted dragon to life” (Wang and Ma, 1995).