By August, Missouri gardens usually show the "wear and tear" of a typical summer and the luster starts to wear off many plants that once were quite showy. Another four weeks of watering, weeding and insect control (while a part of gardening) is not a welcome thought for many. Just when there (seemingly) is little to look forward to in the gardening world, Lycoris makes its annual surprise appearance thus adding a bit of intrigue and beauty to our beleaguered gardens.
Lycoris squamigera, or surprise lily, is the most commonly grown Lycoris and is a member of the Amaryllidaceae family. Other names often used for this species include magic or resurrection lily. The genus Lycoris is named in honor of a Roman beauty (and mistress of Mark Anthony) famed for her intrigues. Presumably the name was chosen because of the disappearance of the leaves in the spring followed by the reappearance of the flowers that spring from the ground in late summer/fall, which is an intriguing aspect of members of the genus.
The genus Lycoris contains over 15 species of plants several of which are considered to have ornamental value; all are bulb-producing perennials in nature. Most members of the genus are native to southeastern Asia and the Orient. Surprise lily itself is a sterile triplod and probably is a hybrid between L. straminea and L. incarnata. Although its exact origin is uncertain, many believe it to be native to Japan or China.
The flowers of surprise lily are very showy and fragrant. They are rose-lilac or pink in color, tubular in shape, and about three inches in length. Flowers are borne in clusters of four to seven as an umbel atop leafless scapes about 18 to 24 inches in height. The latter seemingly pop out of the ground with no evidence of foliage to support their growth. The flowers of surprise lily have similarly appearing petals and sepals (tepals) which reflex to form a flower about three inches in diameter. Unfortunately, since they emerge during the heat of late-summer, the flowers are not particularly long-lived.
The foliage of surprise lily starts to appear in the fall after the flowers have died back. However, it is not until the following spring that significant growth is made. Leaves grow to a length of about 12 to 18 inches by the end of spring. They are strap-like in appearance and about one inch in width. One negative aspect about this plant is that its leaves begin to look unthrifty late in the spring garden as they turn yellow and die back. However, they should not be removed until they totally wither and collapse.
As mentioned above, members of the genus Lycoris produce bulbs. These bulbs multiply via offsets which, in turn, form clumps that may stay in place in the landscape for many years. Eventually, they will become too crowded and division and transplanting will become necessary. Bulbs should be planted about four to six inches deep after flowering has ended. Surprise lily performs best in full-sun locations although they can be grown in light shade with good results. Like most species that produce bulbs, they prefer soil that is porous and well-drained. Other than the latter they tolerate a wide range of soils types and fertility levels.
Surprise lily is a robust plant that requires little care. Hardy in USDA zones 5-10 it is nearly free of insect pests and diseases. Grasshoppers pose somewhat of a problem since they have been known to devour the succulent scapes and buds nearly as fast as they emerge. Fortunately, this occurs only during years of heavy grasshopper infestation or in hot, dry years when other vegetation in not readily available outside of the garden.
For gardeners who would like to try another species of Lycoris that can tolerate our climate, L. radiata, or spider lily, should be considered. It is not as hardy as surprise lily and must be planted in protected locations such as near the warm foundation of a house or provided with mulch for added winter protection. It produces unique red flowers which have very long anthers (hence the common name) that put on a spectacular display in early September. The leaves are green with a light gray band through them. Since its leaves are both shorter and thinner than those of surprise lily, the foliage is more attractive during the spring as it dies down.
REVISED: November 4, 2011