COLUMBIA, Mo.– For Missouri gardeners, August may be the cruelest month. Plants are showing wear and tear from summer heat, the luster of once-showy plants is beginning to fade, and there’s still plenty of work to do.
“Another four weeks of watering, weeding and insect control isn’t a welcome thought for many gardeners,” said David Trinklein, University of Missouri Extension horticulture specialist.
Trinklein’s prescription for brightening gardens worn down by summer is Lycoris squamigera, also known as “surprise lily” and “resurrection lily,” among other common names.
“Just when there is seemingly little to look forward to in the gardening world, Lycoris makes its annual appearance, adding a bit of intrigue and beauty to our beleaguered gardens,” Trinklein said.
The leaves of the surprise lily wither and drop as spring gives way to summer. Then, toward the end of summer—surprise! Blooms of pink or lavender appear atop bare stems, or scapes, which can grow as high as 24 inches.
“Surprise lily is a robust plant that requires little care,” he said. “It is nearly free of insect pests, although grasshoppers can pose somewhat of a problem. Fortunately, this only happens during years of heavy grasshopper infestation or in hot, dry years when other vegetation isn’t readily available outside of the garden.”
The genus Lycoris is named after a Roman actress and former slave whose lovers are said to have included Marc Antony and Marcus Brutus, a lead conspirator in the assassination of Julius Caesar. (Another common name for surprise lily contains an apt hint of scandal: “naked lady.”) It’s a bulb-producing perennial that belongs to the same family as amaryllis.
Because they bloom under the searing heat of summer, surprise lily’s flowers aren’t particularly long-lived, Trinklein notes. In the fall, after the flowers die back, the leaves reappear, but it’s not until the following spring that substantial growth occurs. By the end of spring, the leaves reach about 12-18 inches in length before they turn yellow and start to wither.
The bulbs of Lycoris species multiply via offsets, which are new bulbs that grow around the base of the original bulb. “They form clumps that may stay in place for years,” he said. Eventually, they will become too crowded. At that point you can dig up the bulb, then detach and transplant the offsets.
“Bulbs should be planted 4-6 inches deep after flowering has ended,” Trinklein said. Surprise lily prefers porous, well-drained soil. It grows best in full sun but also can tolerate light shade.
Another Lycoris species, spider lily (L. radiata), produces red flowers containing unusually long pollen-bearing anthers. “It puts on a spectacular display in early September,” he said. “Because its leaves are shorter and thinner than those of the surprise lily, the foliage is more attractive during the spring as it dies down.”
A disadvantage of the spider lily is that it’s not as hardy. “For added winter protection, it must be provided with mulch or planted in protected locations such as near the warm foundation of a house,” he said.