Monday, September 22, 2014

Showy, Sensational Surprise Lily

It happens every year in late summer or early fall, often after a heavy rain: At the end of September or the beginning of October, the old yards and cemeteries around Quincy are festooned with the bright red flowers of surprise lily (Lycoris radiata). It’s an eye-popping display. There’s nothing subtle about surprise lily. It’s as red as a Red Hot, as red as an Atomic Fireball, as red as a Swedish Fish.

Surprise lily is a perennial bulb, a member of the amaryllis family, and a native of China. The flowers appear suddenly, without leaves, without warning, in brilliant clusters crowning a tall bare green stalk called a scape. As long as the flower clusters are in bloom, I can’t stop admiring them and taking pictures of them.

Other things I can’t stop doing: talking about them and trying to think what they remind me of. “They’re kind of like those light-up spinner wands they sell at night at Disney, aren’t they?” I’ll say to Rob. “No, they’re like cat faces with extra-elaborate whiskers!” But this year, after decades of consideration, I’ve decided that they’re most like the fantastical, turning, singing valentine that Snoopy whips up, magically (in about two seconds), in Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown. Do you remember this, fellow middle-aged people? Snoopy uses only a pair of scissors and some red paper to produce an intricate, frilly, three-dimensional card that's also a music box. His creation is as fancy, delicate, and amazing as a surprise lily.

After the flowers fade (they last maybe a week or two), the leaves emerge. They look a lot like daffodil leaves—narrow and grass-like—but the color is different, more blue-green or grayish, and each leaf has a distinctive silver stripe down the middle. The leaves persist through fall and winter and most of the spring. Then in late spring they turn yellow and die back. The plants will be in hiding all summer. You'll forget about them until they emerge again to welcome fall with all their delightful, gaudy fanfare.

Surprise lilies are easy to grow, truly maintenance tree—no watering, no fertilizing, nothing. I usually plant mine in fall, when the bulbs are featured items at the nurseries around town. Plant pointed side up about 3 inches deep and 8 inches apart. Keep in mind that the flower stalks will grow about 18 to 24 inches high and the leaves will stick up about half that height. I like to site my surprise lilies among other, somewhat smaller plants that will help hide the leafless flower stalks (but not the flower clusters) and the foliage as it declines in spring. Surprise lilies are adaptable when it comes to soil type, so they’ll grow almost anywhere. Just don’t plant them in deep shade; they need some sun to bloom.

I’ve purchased a lot of my surprise lilies at our local nurseries, but I’ve also gotten some from other gardeners. Surprise lily is a passalong plant, a living gift shared between friends, neighbors, and generations. When I first moved into my house in Quincy, surprise lilies grew in the front yard in several long rows, a present from a gardener I'd never meet. I moved the bulbs carefully, placing them here and there in the planting beds I was creating. I also gave a few to my office mate, who was very generous and farsighted; she was always giving me seeds, including some gorgeous acorns from a prized oak in her yard.

People who grow surprise lilies seem to want to share them. A few years ago my mom and sisters and I procured some bulbs from a surprise-lily enthusiast who had filled his whole Tallahassee yard with the Swedish-Fish-colored beauties. You could get six bulbs for $10, and all the proceeds went to charity. He'd dig the bulbs right out of his yard for you while you waited, and he tossed in a free garden tour with every purchase.

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