The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

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Naked lilies can dress up a summer garden

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. This amaryllis relative is likely the title holder for the most common names for any plant.

The majority 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 not all are 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, hence their frequent appearance as the last yard inhabitants of an old farm house. Deer and rabbits seldom eat them. Surprise lilies do best in well-drained, organic rich soils. They prefer drier soils during dormancy (after leaves die and before flowers emerge).

Surprise lilies flower best in full sun to 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 them you will find various sizes of bulbs. Go ahead and plant all of them or share with friends. It may take a few years before the small ones flower well. Plant the bulbs soon after digging so the bulb neck is just below the soil.

I find surprise lilies gangly-looking when they are grown alone. Her naked legs look a bit too exposed. She needs groupies. Plant masses of 4-6 surprise lilies with hostas, Japanese painted fern, coralbells, ostrich fern, daylilies, iris and just about anywhere you want some 2-feet tall late summer flowers. The pink flowers are striking with 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 6. 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 August. Lycoris sanguinea with its orange red flowers has the same life cycle as red spider lily. I suspect really wet soil will wipe these out.

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 enjoy experimenting, these naked ladies deserve an invitation to your garden party.

I'd love to hear from you if you are successfully growing any of the "questionably 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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