Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
The first time I encountered Liriope, I thought it was a grass. The leaves were about as wide as a blade of crabgrass and dark green. Then I read that a common name for this plant is lilyturf. But it is not a grass, nor is it a lily.
Liriope is a genus native to East Asia. This genus used to be placed in the lily family, but recent classifications put it in the family Ruscaceae. This family contains a variety of genera, some of which we are familiar with as tropical houseplants: Dracaena, and Sansevieria, commonly called "Mother-in-Law's Tongue".
Pronunciation of Liriope is sometimes debated. The pronunciation guide I found says: "luh-RYE-oh-pee". Sounds like "calliope". But, like lots of horticultural topics, there is probably someone somewhere that believes a different pronunciation is correct. As long as I can figure out what plant a person is talking about, it doesn't really matter to me.
There are two species of Liriope commonly grown: Liriope spicata, and Liriope muscari. Both are evergreen and are typically used as groundcover. Both produce lavender, purple, or white flowers in clusters on spikes followed by blue-black berry-like fruit. The growth habits of the two species are very different and should be taken into account when choosing the site for planting.
Liriope spicata, also called Creeping Lilyturf, is a spreading plant that creeps along by underground stems. It grows to be about 10 to 15 inches tall and will rapidly fill in a given area. This may be a good thing, filling a bare spot with lush green groundcover, or it may be a bad thing if the plant keeps creeping into other flower beds. Most sources advise planting Liriope spicata in areas where hardscape, like a sidewalk or a wall keep it from embarking on a hostile takeover of your yard.
Two popular cultivars of Liriope spicata are 'Franklin Mint' with pale lavender flowers, and 'Silver Dragon' also with lavender flowers, but the narrow leaves are variegated heavily in white.
Liriope muscari, sometimes called Big Blue Lilyturf, is a clump-forming plant rather than a creeper. It is a far better behaved resident in the garden than Liriope spicata. Liriope muscari will be very happy in the border of a flower bed, and won't want to take over the whole thing plus your lawn too.
There are many different cultivars of Liriope muscari available. 'Silvery Sunproof' is variegated in yellow and white, and will withstand full sun better than most Liriope. 'Evergreen Giant' is one of the largest cultivars, reaching 18 to 24 inches tall. Its leaves are very stiff and it produces white flowers. 'Webster Wideleaf' grows to be 12 to 15 inches tall and has the widest leaves among Liriope cultivars.
Liriope is a tough plant that will grow in sand or clay, in shade or full sun. The only "must" in its cultivation is well-drained soil. It will not tolerate "wet feet". I planted an unknown variegated Liriope muscari cultivar in my garden, and I think it is just too wet there for it to be happy. Much of the summer it is like a brick oven, but the rest of the year is just too wet. Some of the plants have died, and some have survived, but have not grown much in three years.
Though Liriope will grow in and tolerate full sun, it will flourish if given some partial shade. I think this is also part of my problem in my home garden. Full sun and high temperatures can cause yellowing and "melting out" of Liriope in the heat of summer.
Liriope should be planted about one foot apart, and plants may be divided every three to four years if you desire to increase your plant numbers. It is not necessary to divide the plants to keep them flowering. You may leave them undisturbed for many years.
Though it's an evergreen, several sources recommend mowing or pruning of last year's foliage in late winter to keep Liriope looking attractive. However, it is important to make sure the crown of the plant near the soil line is not injured, since this is where new growth originates.
After writing this article, it seems obvious that I ought to move my Liriope to a more suitable, more part-shade, less full sun, brick oven-like site. When I bought my Liriope the catalog said it was perfect for hot dry sunny sites. Sometimes the catalog is telling you what you want to hear, and what the plant will tolerate-- not necessarily what the plant prefers.