Now that fall is here, take a walk along the roadsides and you’ll see them popping up everywhere. Clusters of stems with reddish flowers and no leaves seem to come from nowhere. Sometimes we see them where an old homestead was. Occasionally they are near the edge of a ditch. Native to Japan, these naturalize extremely well.
Most people call them surprise lilies (Lycoris squamigera). Others refer to them as spider lilies or naked ladies. Some even call them hurricane lilies as they bloom during hurricane season, especially after strong rains.
In winter to early spring clusters of leaves similar to but smaller than daffodils emerge. Many people don’t notice since daffodils and other spring bulbs are up then. After a few weeks, this foliage dies, but in late summer flower stems appear and the plant continues its lifecycle. Flowers usually bloom for two to three weeks and are about 12 to 18 inches tall.
Bulbs might remind one of small daffodil or Amaryllis bulbs. Usually bulbs are about eight inches deep in the soil, so they aren’t readily pulled up by animals. This is good as the bulbs contain the alkaloid lycorine which is poisonous, but less concentrated than in daffodils.
Some people use the bulbs internally for medicine, but they treat them to leach out the toxin. Their primary medicinal use is as a topical treatment for burns, but they aren’t really a major player in the herbal industry.
I consider them somewhat of a grand finale for the perennial garden. When everything else is waning, they push out of the ground and explode with color. They have a certain tropical appearance. I think they can find a use somewhere in every landscape and their adaptability makes that possible.
Plant a bunch in a bed of ivy, periwinkle or other low ground cover and they will bring the bed alive in the fall. They’re also great in between shrubs in foundation plantings.
Primarily considered a full sun perennial, I see individual clumps thrive in dense shade. They tolerate wet and dry soils. Plants prefer a slightly alkaline pH but will grow in all but the most acidic environments. Deer even leave them alone.
Maintenance is basically zero. Spring foliage is far less noticeable and objectionable than that of daffodils and it blends in with other plants. When leaves die back, they shrivel up. There is no great need to clean them out of the bed.
Their only real drawback is that the flowering season is relatively short. Of course, dogwood, flowering cherry, quince and crabapple and many other trees and shrubs also have short showy seasons. Most irises don’t bloom very long either. Sometimes a short span of impact makes them worth it. Surprise lilies are worth it.
When flowering is over, cut back the stems or let them die naturally. There’s no need to try to keep them alive like you should with daffodils, tulips and hyacinths. Leaves will come later to fortify the bulbs. Sit back and enjoy the surprise of the spider lily.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.