Surprise!

Lycoris radiata, in its first season of bloom in our garden.

Lycoris radiata, in its first season of bloom in our garden.

The surprise spider lily, Lycoris radiata, is one of the beautiful surprises of autumn.  This lovely red lily appears quite suddenly, usually after a heavy rain.  In the southeastern United States is has earned the name, “Hurricane Lily” because it so often appears right after the heavy rains of a hurricane.  It is always a happy surprise to see its beautiful blossoms pop up out of the Earth.

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This sterile bulb, native to Asia, has an interesting growth pattern.   It blooms in late August or September, over several days.

 

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The bulbs divide and produce multiple bloom stalks over the years.  These bulbs don’t like to be disturbed once planted.  The flower is a surprise, partly because no foliage appears before the bloom.  After the flowers fade, the long, strap like leaves begin to appear; hanging around throughout the winter, and making food for the following season’s blooms.  The blooms and leaves rarely appear at the same time.

Although Lycoris radiata is native  to China, it has also been widely grown in Japan for centuries.

The first  bulbs came to the United States sometime in the 1850s.  Early sailors who visited Japan after it opened for trade with the United States brought them back and introduced them into American gardens.  Many sources credit Captain William Roberts with being the first to introduce Lycoris to North America.  Interested in botany, he is said to have brought home three Lycoris bulbs from his trip.   His wife, Lavinia, was an avid gardener with hundreds of roses in her garden, and they likely were a gift for her.  His personal diary, a transcript of which is in the archives at Tryon Palace in New Bern, NC, indicates that Captain Roberts may not have traveled to Japan until several years after the date given in most sources for his trip.

Most current cultivars of Lycoris radiata are hardy in zones 6-9.  Other Lycoris species and hybrids are hardy as far north as zone 4.  More complete information is available from Plant Delights Nursery near Raleigh, NC, which carries an extensive inventory of Lycoris bulbs.  Bulbs are also available from Easy To Grow Bulbs.

 

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Lycoris should be planted in good soil, in a location with full to part sun, about 8” deep, and at least 6” apart.  Like daffodils, once planted, they can be expected to come back year after year.  Also like daffodils, Lycoris are extremely poisonous.  Deer, voles, rabbits, squirrels, and other hungry creatures leave them strictly alone.  This is another good plant for patches of sun in a forest garden, because they won’t be destroyed by the wildlife.  Although the plant is poisonous, Lycoris nectar is still an important late season food for nectar loving insects.

Lycoris  bloom most often after a heavy rain.  In a dry autumn, they may bloom late, or not at all.   Moist soil is important for good growth. Their unpredictability is part of their beauty.

 

This clump of Surprise Lily was already growing in the garden when we moved in.  It surprised and delighted us when it suddenly appeared that September, and continues to bring a smile each year it blooms.

This clump of Surprise Lily was already growing in the garden when we moved in. It surprised and delighted us when it suddenly appeared that September, and continues to bring a smile each year it blooms.

 

In fact, in Japan, they are planted around homes and rice paddies to keep mice away.  They are an important flower in Japan.  Not only do they signal the beginning of autumn, but they are important in family life.  Lycoris bulbs are often planted on the graves of loved ones as a sign of respect and love.  Lycoris features in several traditional folk tales based on the fact that the flowers and leaves are never present at the same time.  Although Lycoris are long lasting cut flowers, they are rarely used as cut flowers in Asia due to their association with death and separation.

Although Lycoris radiata are red, other Lycoris species and cultivars come in white, yellow, pink, orange, and light lavender.  All are hardy, easy to grow plants, which bring surprise and delight to an autumn day.

( Much appreciation to Perry Mathewes for giving additional information on Captain William Roberts, based on his reading of the transcript of Captain Roberts’s diary while he was curator of the gardens at Tryon Palace.)

All photos by Woodland Gnome

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