June 2016
The Magic of Gardening

Looking for Naked Ladies

(I’m talking about spider lilies, of course!)

  Spider lily, Lycoris chinensis (Credit: Rebekah D. Wallace, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org, image #5423361)

I recently bought some property with an old abandoned home and have started watching for all the underground treasures it has buried in the earth. Although my father-in-law suggested I get a good metal detector, I was really thinking of botanical treasures. In addition to the daffodils and spiderworts I saw in late winter, I am hoping to see some naked ladies (not what you think). This is one of the many common names for members of the Lycoris species. Other common names include spider lily, surprise lily, magic lily, resurrection lily and hurricane lily. These lilies are members of the amaryllis family that include other well-known bulbs such as common amaryllis, daylilies, daffodils, rain lilies and snowdrops.

These lilies are easy to grow and naturalize readily and come in a number of colors. If you plant new ones or move to a new location, the bulbs should be planted so the neck is just below the soil surface. Dormant bulbs are best planted during late summer and fall, whereas actively growing plants can be planted other times of the year. These lilies thrive in sunny to partially sunny areas such as the edges of woodlands and shrub borders or under deciduous trees. They do not require fertilizer or irrigation, but grow best in loose, moist soil with good organic matter.

The types that grow best here will have long, narrow leaves that emerge in fall, persist through winter and die down in spring. The clumps of blue-green foliage resemble liriope (monkey grass), but with a pale stripe down the center of each leaf. Leaves turn yellow in spring and should be allowed to die naturally. Cutting back leaves while they are yellowing will harm the bulb and reduce flowering. No leaves are present during summer months when bulbs are dormant or when the blooms arise (hence the name naked lady).

They are called surprise or magic lily because in late summer after a heavy rain flowers appear almost magically since there is no foliage to indicate where the bulbs are planted. Leafless stems emerge and quickly grow 12-24 or more inches tall before being topped by 8-inch clusters of tubular flowers. Most species have flowers with narrow, strap-like petals and extremely long stamens, giving a spidery appearance to the flowers (and hence another common name, spider lily). These lilies make excellent cut flowers as well as beautiful garden plants.

They have a reputation for inconsistent flowering from year to year. This is often caused by bulb crowding. Large clumps of bulbs should be divided every few years to avoid reduced growth and flowering caused by crowding. Bulb clumps are best divided from spring through early summer when bulbs are dormant. Flowering may be delayed a year or more due to the shock of dividing.

Lycoris species have long been used as garden flowers in their native habitats of China and Japan. Bulbs of all Lycoris species contain the alkaloid poison lycorine. Although Lycoris bulbs are considered to have low toxicity, homeowners should be aware of the poisonous potential, particularly if small children and pets are present. On the other hand, this poisonous component has the benefit of making these plants resistant to damage from deer and rodents. Another alkaloid component they contain is galantamine that has been used in medications to treat Alzheimer’s-type dementia. Lycoris is being grown in plantations in China for mass harvest to extract this compound.

If it actually works for dementia, it will live up to its common name of resurrection lily.

Tony A. Glover is a County Extension Coordinator in Cullman County.