How to plant surprise lilies?

As a kid, when I saw the naked ladies pop up in the yard, it was always bittersweet. Their bold presence always made me smile, but I also knew it was almost time to go back to school. The ever-present surprise lilies, also known as spider lilies, naked ladies or naked lilies, were a sad reminder that summer was coming to an end. They are “naked” because the blooms arrive before the foliage and their stems are bare.

These lilies are often called “surprise” lilies, and they can reveal a little bit of history. They tend to linger in the ground longer than anyone expects and are often the only remnant of an old homestead or garden bed. And new homeowners are often surprised when they seemingly pop up in the middle of the yard or in other offbeat places. It’s like they have a mind of their own, but eventually they will stand up and say, “Surprise!”

Amaryllis belladonna given to me by my aunt.

The long stems support a bright shock of petals in the late summer or early fall, and the foliage follows in the winter. The one that might be most commonly seen in the U.S. is lycoris radiata, the red spider lily. For me, the ones I most look forward to are the lovely pink Amaryllis belladonna in my garden. These bulbs were given to me by my aunt Virginia, and each season they are a beautiful reminder of her and her generosity. These bulbs are typically planted in the spring, just below the surface of the soil. In colder climates, they may need mulching or overwintering, but for the most part, you can “set it and forget it.” They need little water and are very drought tolerant. They like full sun, but most lilies can tolerate a little shade.

The Lycoris radiata, or “spider lily” was brought to the U. S. from Japan in the mid-1800s. They also should be planted in the spring in well-drained soil in full sun. They’re also a member of the amaryllis family, and some are more winter hardy than others.

And don’t forget to fertilize when you plant the bulbs, or if you have well-established flowers that return year after year, you can add fertilizer to the soil as topdressing in the spring. A slow-release 10-10-20 fertilizer is recommended. Most summer bulbs are winter hardy in zones 8 to 10. If you’re outside of those areas, you can “lift” or dig up your summer blooming bulbs for winter storage. After frost kills the flowers and stems, dig up the roots and shake away the soil. Then remove dead leaves and stems and place the bulb and its root system in dry peat moss or wood shavings. Your container should allow air to reach the roots. Store in a warm, dry place where temperatures are kept above freezing.

It’s too late to have “naked ladies” in your yard this fall, but there’s always next year. So, if you’re in the mood to plan, right now, it’s time to order bulbs for spring planting. For more information on planning next year’s garden, .

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A Summer Blooming Surprise: Lycoris squamigera, the Magic Lily

Surprise, or magic lilies (Lycoris squamigera) aren’t actually lilies at all. They are a cold-hardy member of the amaryllis family. These summer-blooming bulbs grow well in USDA zones 5 through 9, although colder climate gardeners have reported success if planted in a sheltered location and mulched heavily each fall. Some Canadian gardeners even report long-lived colonies when planted near southern walls, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Actually, northern gardeners tend to have better success than southern gardeners out of the growing zone because these bulbs need some chill hours below 32 degrees to properly set blooms.

Native to Japan and China, but naturalized all over Asia, these beautiful pink or white blooms sit atop 1 to 2 foot stalks that sprout after the foliage dies back. The strap-like foliage appears in early spring about the time daffodils emerge. The foliage hangs around without producing blooms for several months and inexperienced gardeners grieve over the lack of flowers. The leaves eventually die back as summer heats up and the nitrogen they stored feeds the bulbs that sit beneath the soil. Just when the gardener forgets about the flowerless leaves that proved such a disappointment, in late July or early August, naked flower scapes appear seemingly overnight and burst forth with frothy, frilly, fragrant blooms. This pleasant surprise has contributed to several descriptive common names. Surprise lily, resurrection lily, magic lily all refer to the fact that they shoot up almost out of nowhere. Naked ladies refer to the characteristic that the flower stalks are bare of any leaves or foliage. The lack of foliage is an excellent way of determining whether you are growing Lycoris squamigera or it’s close cousin, Amaryllis belladona. The A.belladonna’s foliage emerges after the bulbs flower as opposed to before. Also, the A. belladonna is much more susceptible to cold weather, so is mainly grown in the southern climates. Both look similar and use the same common names, so this is a good reason to learn your Latin names.

Plant your surprise lilies in well-drained, good soil, although they tolerate clay and sand quite well, for the best show, make sure there is ample organic matter mixed in. They do well planted a couple of inches below the soil line although colder climates benefit from setting the bulbs a bit deeper. They like full sun, but also bloom in partially shaded areas and look stunning along wooded areas mixed with ferns and hostas. Plant with mounding sun-loving plants like petunias or ornamental sweet potatoes and I’ve even had a lovely display using purple Tradescantia pallida (‘Purple Heart’). These bulbs are actually low-maintenance and seldom need additional water after the foliage dies back. They tolerate container life well, are deer resistant and insects tend to avoid them too. They reproduce with offsets and naturalize well. Divide the bulbs every 3 to 5 years for the best show.

Asian folk medicine used this plant for its sedative properties, but since the compound galanthamine is a toxic substance, few use it anymore. The bulbs were also a starchy food source, however they had to be leached through several changes of water to remove the toxicity.

The fragrant flowers are showy and are attractive to hummingbirds, bees and butterflies, so they would make a great addition to a wildlife garden. Chances are, a friend or neighbor has some extras, as they are nice pass-along plants. However, a number of commercial sources offer them and it isn’t too late to plant some for blooms this summer. The bulbs can be planted in early spring as soon as the ground is workable, or in the fall when you are planting other bulbs. These are easy-care bulbs that give a huge bang for the buck, so add a few to your garden and enjoy the late summer surprise.

Lycoris Care – How To Grow The Lycoris Flower In The Garden

There are many common names for the Lycoris squamigera, most of which accurately describe this charming, fragrant flowering plant with an unusual habit. Some call it Resurrection lily; others refer to showy blooms of the Lycoris flower as the surprise lily or as the naked lady. Read on for more information on this plant.

The Surprising Lycoris Lily

The Lycoris bulb will indeed surprise you if you are not familiar with her ways. Lycoris first presents a lush display of draping foliage, similar to that of the daffodil. A closer look reveals rounded leaf tips on attractive arching leaves. Just when you expect buds to develop, the foliage dies back and the unaware gardener can feel robbed.

However, the Lycoris squamigera lies in wait for just the right time to bloom. Lycoris care does not involve the removal of the dying foliage from the plant. The nitrogen rich foliage disintegrates to nourish the Lycoris bulb below the soil. When foliage of the Lycoris squamigera dies back in spring, the gardener may wish to plant a dainty, low growing

ground cover to add to the display of the Lycoris flower that will bloom in July to August.

Lycoris squamigera appears quickly atop a sturdy stem called a scape. Scapes rise quickly from the soil and bear clusters of six to eight of the showy, pink Lycoris flower. Scapes reach 1 to 2 feet and fragrant blooms of the Lycoris flower last for several weeks.

Tips for Growing Lycoris

Plant Lycoris bulbs in a full sun location for fullest bloom. Blooms also occur in part sun areas. Well drained soil is necessary for a long and productive display. Plant Lycoris bulbs with the tip just below soil level, more deeply in colder areas. From the Amaryllis family, the Lycoris squamigera bulb is the most cold hardy of the family and grows in USDA gardening zones 5-10.

Plan long term placement of the Lycoris bulb, as it does not like to be disturbed once planted. The Lycoris lily is a showy addition to the flower garden or when landscaping a partially shaded natural area and is deer resistant.

Lycoris bulbs return for several years. If blooms seem diminished, it may be time for division, which is best accomplished after the strappy foliage dies back in spring. Dividing Lycoris bulbs every few years produces more of these charming plants. Replant bulbs quickly into beds where the continued beauty of the flower can be seen and smelled.

The Lycoris flower is not a drought resistant specimen and will benefit from regular watering unless dormant. Dormancy occurs in winter and between foliage die back to bloom time in spring to summer.

Do not fertilize Lycoris bulb soon after planting; wait for a month or so to avoid burning the newly forming roots. Two different fertilizers benefit the Lycoris flower and foliage; one which is high in potassium in late autumn followed by a nitrogen rich fertilizer in early spring. This encourages growth in foliage, thereby encouraging bigger blooms of the Lycoris flower.


Resurrection lilies bloom on leafless stalks like these in late summer into early fall.

(George Weigel)

* Common name: Resurrection lily

* Botanical name: Lycoris squamigera

* What it is: An unusual bulb in that it sends up its strappy green leaves in spring but doesn’t flower until late summer. The foliage dies back to the ground by June, then bare flower stalks (no leaves) emerge in August to flower with mildly fragrant, upward-facing, tubular flowers of lavender-pink into early September. Because the plant seems to rise leaflessly from the dead, it has such nicknames as resurrection lily, surprise lily and naked lady. Note: leaves are toxic, which is why deer don’t eat these.

* Size: Foliage grows 15-18 inches tall. Flower stalks can grow up to 2 feet tall. Space bulbs 6 inches apart.

* Where to use: Plant in clusters of at least 10 or 12 in border beds, along wooded edges or under trees. Will colonize over time. Full sun to part shade.

* Care: Resurrection lily bulbs are best planted when dormant over summer in loose, well drained soil or raised beds. The second best planting time is early spring. Scatter an organic, granular bulb fertilizer over the bed in early spring and early fall each year to maximize performance. Let foliage die back naturally in spring. Do not cut it while green. Dead flower stalks can be raked off any time from late fall to winter’s end. Soak weekly during dry weather when plants are growing.

* Great partners: Plant bulbs into a low groundcover so there’s something over the bare ground in summer. Leadwort and creeping sedum are good options. Resurrection lily stalks will poke up through it.

The first year there were no flowers. The second year I watched impatiently after the foliage had gone and then forgot about them.

Like many a tired gardener by late summer, I was seeking respite from August heat in recreations other than weeding and hoeing. Imagine my surprise one morning to see several large clusters of pale, lilac‐pink, lily‐shaped flowers. My Magic Lilies!

The suddenness with which they appear is amazing. The thick, fleshy, bud ‐ tipped stalks seem to shoot up to two to three feet almost overnight. Then before the unwary gardener realizes, the flowers start bursting out in umbels of eight to ten blooms each. They last about two to three weeks in mid to late August or early September.

Although the flowers do resemble lilies, the plants are members of the amaryllis family, sharing the same type of large bulb, thick flower stalks and similar foliage. Unlike most of these tender amaryllis, which originated in South Africa and South America, the Lycoris is a native of China and Japan. The bulbs are either imported from Japan or now grown in this country. It is the only amaryllis commonly grown as a hardy plant in this climate.

Culture is simple. Bulbs (found in a large number of mail order catalogues) can be planted in either fall or spring, from August to frost, or from March or April to June. Fall is preferable for bloom the first year. The bulbs should be planted as soon as they arrive, at least five inches deep, in a cool, moist soil, rich in humus. They prefer a semi‐shady location.

Have you ever heard of a plant called surprise lily. It looks like a lily plant. I first saw this plant when I was in Georgia and found it in S. Carolina also, however I could not find it for sale or find its correct name.

The surprise lily that I know is lycoris. There are two popular forms: Lycoris squamigeria, naked lady, and Lycoris radiata, spider lily. Naked ladies have pink trumpet shaped blooms and spider lilies have a red, delicate, spider-like flower. Lycoris’ blooms appear long after the foliage dies back in early summer, hence the name surprise lily. If you are like me, you’ll forget they are there until the flower stalk emerges in late summer.

Surprise lilies grow in a broad section of the country, only the coldest regions challenge their hardiness. But even in these areas, if you plant them a little deeper, against a south facing wall, many times you can bring them through.

If you decide to plant some of these in a flowerbed, make sure it’s in an area where you don’t work the soil up too much because you can damage and destroy the bulbs. I actually like to plant them under ground cover, so they’ll come up through a carpet of green and give it a nice sparkle.

Lycoris are versatile and tough. They’ll grow in both full sun and light shade and you will often see them growing alone on old home sites or where the garden has long since disappeared.

You’ll find the bulbs for purchase in most bulb company’s fall catalog, but some companies include them in their spring inventory for summer planting.

Don’t be disappointed if they don’t bloom the first year. It sometimes takes a year of two for them to get settled, but then that will only add to the surprise!

Lycoris / Surprise Lily Planting Guide

Whether you know them as Lycoris, Surprise Lilies, Spider Lilies, or even as Naked Lilies, these unusual and durable bulbs deserve consideration. With flowers that resemble wild combinations of curled ribbon and long eyelashes, the blooms look like nothing else in the garden . . . in a good way. And once settled in, these babies are tough.

In a number of Southeastern states it’s not uncommon, and oh so fortunate, to round a bend and see a sweep of these by an old homestead. It’s clear that they’ve taken care of themselves for years, blooming steadfastly around Labor Day, brightening the landscape.

Don’t have a meadow to colonize? Lycoris spark up garden beds, adding a party flare late in the season when other plants are looking tired. The red variety is winter hardy to zone 5, meaning it’ll grow in three quarters of the country. Wow!

Choosing a Site

Lycoris plants love the sun and are happy with full sun or partial sun. These bulbs are dormant during the summer and spring up in late August and September. One of the common names for these plants is “naked ladies” because the flower stalks precede the development of foliage, leaving “naked” stems. This is helpful to know as you consider design esthetics.

Soil Prep

Lycoris prefer average to moist, but never soggy, soil. A planting site with average to fertile garden soil works well. Digging in same compost before planting is a good idea unless your soil is already very rich. Lycoris prefer to stay in the same spot, undisturbed, for years.

When to Plant Lycoris

Plant outdoors when frost danger has past. Once established, lycoris can manage cold to about 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

How to Plant Lycoris Bulbs

Plant these big bulbs with ½” of the neck exposed. If planted too deep, the bulbs will sprout and grow but are less likely to flower. Tamp down soil and water well to settle the soil around the bulbs. Plant bulbs about 9” apart.

During the Season

These summer-dormant bulbs develop roots early in the year and sit, dormant for months. The bulbs sleep through the heat of summer and then produce wildly exotic flowers in late August or early September. Strappy foliage follows the flowers.

Water sparingly until top growth appears. This is only necessary the first year. After your lycoris are established they’ll manage without supplemental watering.

At the Season’s End

For gardeners in zones 6-10 red lycoris are perennial, successfully overwintering outdoors. (Recent planting indicte hardiness to zone 5 for the red flowering variety with protective winter mulch.) The range for yellow flowering variety, lycoris aurea, extends to zone 7. Fall sprouting foliage for these lycoris dies back in winter in the colder parts of their growing ranges.

Varietal Differences

Red Surprise lilies produce smaller bulbs and are winter hardy through zone 5.

Yellow Surprise lilies produce long strappy leaves up to a yard in length, with a white stripe up the center. These plants are winter hardy through zone 7.

Insider Tips

  1. Unsure about overwintering in your area? Start with Red Surprise lilies; they are more winter hardy.
  2. Cut flowers? You bet! These are fun, unusual and not an option from your local florist.

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