Surprise Lilies

Surprise lilies budding at Bluebird Gardens.

Surprise Lilies

Several friends have told me they are a bit worried this year. Their surprise lilies Lycoris squamigera have popped up earlier than usual, they said, starting to bloom mid-July as opposed to early August. Is this one of those signs that winter will also be earlier than usual?

Also called Resurrection lilies, mine also started to pop up mid-July but, as I told them, the plant name suggests trying to time when these perennials bloom is probably not a good idea. After all, it’s supposed to be unexpected, isn’t it?

According to the Missouri Botanical Garden, plants in the genus Lycoris are sometimes commonly called resurrection flower, surprise lily or magic lily because the leaves disappear in summer with the flower spikes seemingly rising from the dead in late summer.

And while I am on the background of this delightful plant family , the genus name Lycoris is in honor of Mark Anthony’s mistress, and it wasn’t Cleopatra.

North America's Amaryllis Cousin

Surprise lilies are north American cousins to the Amaryllis we tend to see for sale around Christmas.  The Christmas Amaryllis won’t survive our Midwest winters but surprise lilies are perennials in our USDA zone 5b growing area.

Surprise lily leaves appear in spring, collecting energy through those leaves and storing it in the below ground bulbs, then turning the leaves yellow and dying off. Then mid-summer, seemingly all of a sudden, a green stalk with buds at the top appear, heralding the arrival of what some people also call the “naked ladies.”

The princess pink aromatic flowers last several days as cut flowers.  The green stems will curl up at the bottom of a flower vase, forming an interesting artistic pattern all of their own.

Cut surprise lilies in a vase at Bluebird Gardens.

Surprise lilies have been a popular landscaping addition for a number of decades in the Midwest and sometimes mark abandoned homesteads.

How to Care for Surprise Lilies

If you have surprise lilies in your garden, or are given bulbs to plant, these are relatively low maintenance.

Surprise lily bulbs should be separated every 5 years or so or they will grow too thick to bloom.

The best time to move surprise lily bulbs is right after they bloom. I have also successfully moved surprise lilies as the green leaves were dying off mid-spring. Regardless of when you dig them up, start a good 5 inches from the edge of where you think the bulbs are so you don’t cut into the bulbs.

If the ground is dry, wet it down first before digging up the bulbs to minimize damage to roots.

Transplant to an area with room to grow. I mix compost and some aged mulch into the soil to help the bulbs get a good start once they are ready to grow.

I also try to plant them where I will remember they are located so I am not digging into them later thinking this is a free spot to plant something else.

Intersperse surprise lilies with pink phlox and plant them behind daylilies and iris, which provide the plants some cover as they bloom.


Naked Ladies

Surprise lilies, also called naked ladies, make lovely cut flowers.

Surprise lilies, also called naked ladies, make lovely cut flowers.

Naked Ladies

When I started doing a live Rolla radio interview a few years back, I would take fresh flowers in from my garden.

Both radio personalities Lee Buhr and Bob McKune seemed to enjoy the flowers, and it was a fun way to relate to radio listeners. For the following days after the interview, people would approach me with their stories about a particular flower or on-air discussion.

One year, I had to step away for a few minutes before the interview so I snuck the flowers into the studio.

It was a vase of surprise lilies, also called resurrection lilies or magic lilies.

Surprise lilies get their nickname from their habit of blooming on naked stalks.

Surprise lilies get their nickname from their habit of blooming on naked stalks.

A cousin to the popular Amaryllis bulbs available around Christmas, surprise lilies leaf out in spring, then die back until mid-July, when one green stalk makes its way out of the ground and soft pink blooms appear on the top for several days.

One surprise lily can fill a room with its sweet fragrance.

As cut flowers, surprise lily stalks have an interesting habit of curling up at the bottom, giving them a very modern look in a clear glass vase.

Perennial bulbs originally from the East - either Japan or China, surprise lilies are found on old farmsteads in Missouri, almost as popular as daffodils and day lilies.

When I got back to the radio station, I was told the phones were ringing off the hook.

Thinking it was due to some discussion Lee and Bob were having, I thought nothing of it when Bob motioned me to enter the studio.

We had a nice discussion about surprise lilies and what else was growing in my garden, a few words about an upcoming event and I was through.

As I was getting back to my office, someone asked if I had heard what Bob had said as my introduction to the interview.

"Bob said coming up next, naked ladies in the studio."

That's another name for surprise lilies, but to this day there are some people who bring it up as if they need confirmation impish Bob wasn't talking about me!