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On Gardening: Surprise! Red spider lilies are a late-summer treat

September 22, 2014

The spider lily's long stamens make it fitting for a tropical garden style as well as Grandma's cottage garden.

The red spider lily is among the showiest bulbs we can grow, and a group of a 100 plus could border on the spectacular. Iíve always wondered if anyone had ever planted so boldly, and then on a recent weekend there they were for me to see, and I couldnít stop the car fast enough.

I was visiting Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga., and close to a trail connecting their Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Garden to the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center were two magnificent displays. These were large drifts planted in sun where their color radiated from a distance. As I walked close, shooting photos, I noticed Cloudless Sulphur butterflies and bumblebees feasting on the blossoms.

Each September something almost magical happens across the country as these bulbs pop up and surprise everyone who had forgotten about them. In some regions they are called red surprise lilies. They are known botanically as Lycoris radiata and related to the amaryllis. Despite the fact they naturalize with ease, making you think they might be native, they are really from Japan. They are cold hardy to zone 5a, meaning much of the country can enjoy their show.

In addition to the common name red surprise lily, they also go by hurricane lily and schoolhouse lily giving reference to the time of the year they bloom. Humorously they are also called naked ladies, as they bloom without foliage.

The bulbs will take a little work on your part. Not so much from tilling the soil but from finding them. After you find a source, plant your bulbs in the spring in fertile, organic-rich, well-drained beds in full or partial sun. Place the bulbs about 3-inches deep, spacing 6 to 8 inches apart. They can be planted in straight lines for a formal look, and I have seen some picturesque plantings along decorative iron fencing. It is the mass planting in bold informal drifts that captures my attention.

Once the flower is finished, the foliage arises and will make food for the bulb from fall or winter through late spring. The temptation is to mow those that have naturalized or cut them back for a tidy look, but this will harm the next seasonís bloom. If you want more plants, divide in the spring as the foliage starts to turn yellow. This is the best way to get a really good stand. Even better is to buy more bulbs this winter.

Because the red spider lily doesnít bloom long, it makes a great addition to beds with a groundcover like ivy: The flowers will emerge above the groundcover but will not be missed when they retreat back to the ground. The long stamens give a tropical appearance that allows them to be used in and around bananas and elephant ears. Iíve seen wonderful plantings with yucca and agave, which took a lot of imagination. But a bold informal drift in a meadow type situation is my favorite.

In addition to the red spider lily, look for the white Alba, the yellow-gold Lycoris aurea (zones 8 to 10) and Lycoris squamigera, the real Naked Lady. This plant features pink blooms during the summer and is also cold-hardy.

As Callaway Gardens has shown, mass plantings are beautiful when it comes to the red spider lilies, and the fact they attract pollinators, too, is extra special. Start locating your source now for spring planting.

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