Surprise- It's a Spider Lily!

Whether you know them as Spider Lilies, Surprise Lilies, Magic Lilies, Hurricane Lilies, Resurrection Lilies or Naked Ladies the interesting Lycoris species are charming plants for fall color in the garden. These plants send up a long shoot, seemingly from nowhere, that soon sports dainty flowers in the fall. Once established, they are carefree, pest free plants that persist for many years.

Spider Lilies are sometimes called Surprise Lilies because they send up their flower shoot after the leaves have become dormant and died. They sometimes lie dormant for a year or two if fall conditions aren't right and then return to surprise you.

The Spider or Surprise Lily belongs to the Amaryllis family and is native to China, Japan and other parts of Asia. Some species are hardy to zone 5. Similar to the amaryllis, the Lycoris send out strap like long green leaves, either after the plant finishes blooming or in early spring depending on the species and the climate.

The leaves persist long enough to make food for the plant and set a new flower bud in the bulb and the die back, disappearing from your sight and conscience. Then in late summer or fall, usually after a good rain, hence the name Hurricane lily, a long stalk appears out of the ground. The stalks are 12 to 24 inches in height depending on species.

The stalk will produce clusters of tubular flowers with 6 long, narrow petals. These flowers last a long time in the garden, and also in the vase if used as cut flowers. The petals on the flowers curve backward and the long stamens in the center give it an airy appearance and contribute to the name Spider Lily. There are some varieties with wider petals that look more like small lily flowers. The flowers come in shades of red, pink, white, lavender and yellow.

Growing Lycoris

Gardeners will start with Lycoris bulbs. Spring is the best time to plant the bulbs, although they are also sold in the fall. Over time the bulbs produce more bulbs and large clumps of plants will develop. When you plant your bulb it may or may not begin growing leaves. Sometimes they flower the fall after planting, but sometimes they will wait a year. These are plants that require patience.

Bulbs are not common in garden stores; they usually have to be mail ordered. Plant them as soon you get them as they do not store well. If a friend offers you some, dig them in late spring to transplant.

Lycoris are woodland edge plants. They like to be in the light or dappled shade of deciduous trees in summer, in full sun during the winter. Since tree canopies shed rain and tree roots absorb what moisture falls in the summer, the plants go dormant to survive. When plants go dormant make sure you mark the spot so you won't disturb them.

Then in the fall when rains typically pick up, the plant flowers, springing up and coming to bloom rapidly. You may have forgotten it was there - surprise! It then forms new leaves to grow as the trees shed theirs and let more light in. Some species wait until spring to produce the leaves which grow for a few weeks then die back.

Lycoris prefer a rich soil full of organic matter. The soil must be well drained; the bulbs rot if they sit in waterlogged soil over winter. If summer has been very dry and fall rains are not coming, you may want to deep water the area around your Lycoris bulbs to stimulate flowering.

In the north Lycoris have been grown in sunny areas successfully if kept well watered near bloom time. Lycoris are also grown as pot plants, similar to Amaryllis.

Spider Lilies may not flower every year. Once they are established in a good spot though, the floral display will be quite abundant and the plants long lived. They are a plant that thrives on benign neglect, preferring not to be disturbed.

Surprise lilies are pretty disease and pest resistant. Deer and other animals don't eat the foliage or bulbs. The plants don't need fertilization or much care. Just make sure you don't dig them up or plant something on top of them when they are dormant.

In areas where the ground freezes mulch should be applied over the bulbs, after the ground is frozen, and removed in the spring.

Choosing Varieties

The two best known species are Lycoris radiata, which has red flowers, hardy to Zone 6, and Naked Ladies or Lycoris squamigera, hardy to zone 5, with pale pink flowers that tend to face more outward than other Surprise lilies.

Other species are Lycoris sprengeri, which has glowing lavender pink flowers, hardy to zone 5, Lycoris sanquinea , with orange flowers, hardy to zone 6, and Lycoris albiflora, white flowers and narrow foliage hardy to zone 5. A hybrid species Lycoris aurea Guizhow also called Golden Hurricane lily, has tall spikes of golden flowers and is hardy to zone 7.

In Asia many species and hybrids are cultivated and interesting ones sometimes enter the US market. There are some hybrid varieties that are sterile.

Cautions

All Lycoris parts are poisonous.

A South American plant Nerine, has similar flowers and also appears after a dormant period. They are commonly called Rain Lilies. Lycoris and Nerine are sometimes mislabeled or confused by plant sellers.

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