Commonly known as “magic lily,” plants in the genus Lycoris are, in fact, much more closely related to amaryllis than to their namesake. But they do bring plenty of magic to the landscape when they open their large funnel-shaped flowers on tall naked stems in mid- to late summer. Several are winter-hardy to boot, creating all sorts of delicious possibilities for gardens in USDA Hardiness Zone 5 and warmer. With their showy amaryllis-like flowers and their tolerance of bitter winters and partial shade, these bulbs from East Asia make marvelous (and miraculous) subjects for cold-climate gardens.
The major challenge in growing Lycoris is in finding some to plant in the first place. Unlike their close kin, the daffodils, magic lilies do not take well to dry storage, and purchased bulbs may be reluctant to establish after planting. Additionally, most hardy Lycoris species and hybrids are virtually unavailable from U.S. bulb merchants. This is partly due to their growth cycle, which does not mesh well with the shipping seasons of commercial suppliers.
Common Surprise Lily
Hardy Lycoris begin their growing season in early spring, sending up clumps of strappy leaves that suggest daffodil foliage. The leaves wither away in late spring, setting the stage for the floral display to come. In northern U.S. gardens, this is almost always in the form of the lilac-pink blooms of Lycoris squamigera. Large and lovely, the funnel-shaped flowers of this robust magic lily open in clusters on 2-foot stems from late July into August. They are particularly magical in partial shade, where splashes of sunlight can set them aglow. At its best when thrusting through companion plants such as ferns and hostas, Lycoris squamigera multiplies relatively rapidly into lush clumps and is well suited for naturalizing. A sterile triploid (i.e. with an extra set of chromosomes), it increases solely by division of its bulbs.
Other Surprise Lilies
Far less often seen are a number of other hardy Lycoris, all of which would make prized additions to any garden that can support them. Flower colors include pale silver-pink with lilac-purple midribs (Lycoris incarnata); white with a lemon-yellow throat (Lycoris longituba); lavender-pink with rose-pink streaking (Lycoris sprengeri); pale creamy-yellow (Lycoris x caldwellii); shimmering orchid-pink (Lycoris x haywardii); and orange to salmon-pink (Lycoris sanguinea). Breeders in China, Japan, and elsewhere have crossed these and other species to produce an array of delicious hybrids, including some that are beginning to appear in U.S. catalogs. American gardeners have much to discover in this enchanting genus.
Growing Surprise Lilies
To create your own garden magic, purchase Lycoris in pots, or as bare-root bulbs in late summer. Plant the bulbs several inches deep in the sun to partial shade as soon as possible after receiving them. Although Lycoris squamigera does well in almost any soil type, most other species favor relatively fertile, humus-rich soil (amend excessively heavy or sandy soils with a good compost such as Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost or Peat Moss. Plants may take a year to fully establish and bloom, but the magic of a Lycoris in full glory is well worth the wait.