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When Lilies Take You By Surprise

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.
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, click here.

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