Surprise Lilies are a Treat for the Eyes in the Late Summer Garden
Have you ever had some flowers just "show up" unexpectedly in your fall garden? These are likely Surprise Lilies, or Lycoris species that produce foliage early in the season, and later, long after the foliage has died back, flowers bloom on tall, leafless stems. To learn more about these interesting plants, read this article...
Do you have naked ladies in your garden?? No, not actual naked ladies, the plant called ‘naked ladies’. Perhaps you know these plants by one of their many other names, such as surprise lilies or spider lilies or magic lilies or mystery lilies or resurrection lilies or hardy amaryllis or even pink flamingo flowers.
All these colorful common names have been applied to late summer-blooming plants in the genus Lycoris. The reason that they have inspired some of the interesting common names above is that they bloom without any accompanying foliage. The flowers look like they just jumped out of the ground — like magic! Or, as some folks prefer, naked: without any leaves.
Flowers appear from late July through August in our area. The plants DO have leaves, they just appear in a different season (spring in southern Wisconsin). Although the tall, strap-like foliage is quite vigorous, it is not very exciting to look at, and by the time the plants flower, the leaves have quietly withered away, leaving no trace behind.
Lycoris plants belong to the amaryllis family. There are approximately 23 species and most are native to China or Japan. All Lycoris plants are somewhat poisonous if eaten. They contain an alkaloid called lycorine that will cause a low-level toxicity reaction if the plant is ingested. Some symptoms include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The moral of the story of course, is to avoid eating the plant, and to avoid planting it where small children or pets might be endangered.
Lycoris flowers come in a wide range of colors. Depending on the species, the flowers may be red, pink, yellow or white. New cultivars are now being developed, and will probably broaden the spectrum of available colors even further.
All of the Lycoris flowers have long arching stamens and a pistil that extend as far or farther than the tips of the petals. Stamens are the male, pollen-carrying part of the flower, and the pistil is the female pollen receptor. They give the flower its exotic ‘spidery’ look that is reflected in the common name ‘spider lily’. The petals are long and narrow too, which adds to the spidery look. In some species, the petals are also rippled along the edges. Flowers are generally three to four inches wide and borne in a cluster on top of the 18-24-inch-tall stems. Unfortunately many of the plants available in the trade are sterile hybrid triploids and will not produce seed readily.
Most of the species are not fully hardy in our area. The species that is most commonly found in gardens in the northern United States is Lycoris squamigera, or pink surprise lily. This species has pink flowers with smooth-edged petals. The bulbs should be planted in July before they flower, with the neck of the bulb just above the soil line. The plants will grow in partial shade to full sun and they tolerate our heavy clay soils quite well. Plant the bulbs in clusters for the best display. Do not overwater the bulbs during their dormant season. You can apply a light mulch to help with overwintering, especially if you live in USDA Zone 4. Then sit back and enjoy the magic!
- Lycoris squamigera – on the Floridata website
- Notes on Lycoris species – a rather technical Australian site
– Lisa Johnson, Dane Co. UW-Extension