The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

The Surprise In Surprise Lilies

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

Surprise lily, spider lily, magic lily, resurrection lily, pink flamingo flower, hurricane lily, naked lily and the ever popular "nekkid" lady are all names for the same plant. It must hold the title of the most common names for any plant.

Most of the common names refer to the plant's split personality. Similar to feuding in-laws the leaves and flowers refuse to appear together. In spring, long amaryllis-like leaves grow in large clumps. By early summer the leaves have yellowed and withered. In mid July-August the surprise appears. The fragrant flowers pop out of the ground overnight. Large 2-feet tall naked stems erupt with 6-8 pink blushed funnel shaped flowers. This flower is definitely proud of its long legs.

Several species of surprise lilies exist, but most are not reliably winter hardy here. The most common one we see popping out of the ground this time of year is Lycoris squamigera.

Our traditional surprise lilies are very easy and durable to grow. They don't seem picky about soil. Although I imagine they wouldn't do well in really wet areas. Daylilies and surprise lilies are often the last remnants of an old house site. Recently I saw a surprise lily blooming on the edge of a soybean field.

Surprise lilies flower best in full sun, but do well in partial shade. Bulbs gleefully multiply, so every 5 years or so they can be dug and separated after flowering. The bulb resembles its amaryllis cousin. Bulbs are large at maturity and can grow to about 2 inches in diameter. When you dig and separate them you will find various sizes of bulbs. Go ahead and plant all of them, but it may take a few years before the small ones flower well. Plant the bulbs 4-6 inches deep.

I find surprise lilies a bit exposed and gangly when they are grown alone in the lawn. I think they look better in a crowd. Plant masses of 4-6 surprise lilies with hostas, ostrich fern, daylilies, iris and just about anywhere you want some 2-feet tall late summer flowers. Chicago Botanic Garden has them planted in a shrub border with red leafed barberry. The pink flowers are striking with the red leaves. Or dig bulbs after leaves die and add to annual flower containers.

For centuries surprise lilies have been hybridized among different species, so their parentage gets a bit fuzzy. Also their winter hardiness ratings don't always agree between references.

Red spider lily, Lycoris radiata, is listed in most references as winter hardy to zone 6 but one listed it as zone 3. We are zone 5. The higher the zone number, the less hardy it is. Spider lily has very long stamens similar to cat's whiskers. It blooms a bit later and its life cycle is different then our common surprise lily. The leaves appear in fall, hang around all winter and die in early summer then it flowers in October. Lycoris sanguinea with its orange red flowers has the same life cycle as red spider lily.

Tie dye surprise lily, Lycoris sprengeri, is listed as zone 5 or zone 6. It's a bit shorter at 18 inches tall. Its small dark pink flowers have tie dye blue streaking.

If you don't mind experimenting, these additional surprise lilies are worth a trial.

I'd love to hear from you if you are successfully growing any of the "non-hardy" surprise lilies.

Some gardeners have found Plant Delights Nursery a resource for unique surprise lilies. *

*URLs of sites not affiliated with University of Illinois Extension are provided solely for our clients' convenience. Reference to specific external websites does not imply endorsement by University of Illinois Extension nor is discrimination intended against any omitted.

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