How to Grow and Care for Surprise Lilies (Lycoris)

Introduction to Lycoris

The common names for plants in the Lycoris genus, including resurrection flower, surprise lily, and magic lily, hint at the allure of these remarkable bulbs. The plants start out in spring with strappy foliage, which grows for a few months and then dies back — nothing surprising there. The real fun starts in late summer, when leafless flower stalks rise majestically from the dead foliage and open into a bouquet of stunning blooms, as if by magic. Other common names include mystery lily, disappearing lily, and naked ladies (in reference to the leafless flower stems).

About Lycoris

Blooming in vibrant shades of red, pink, white, and yellow, lycoris plants provide much-needed color in late summer when many other perennials have stopped blooming. The showy flowers have elongated petals (technically called tepals) and long, curved anthers, giving them a delicate, airy appearance that gives rise to another common name: spider lily.

The plants aren’t true lilies; rather, they’re members of the Amaryllis family. The common names refer to the trumpet-shaped blooms that resemble lilies. The fragrant flowers attract pollinators, including butterflies and hummingbirds, and are long-lasting in bouquets. 

Native to eastern Asia, lycoris plants were brought to North America for use as garden ornamentals. They’ve now naturalized and established themselves in parts of the southeastern U.S., where they’re sometimes called hurricane flowers because they bloom during the peak of hurricane season. 

Lycoris plants grow from bulbs that are generally planted in fall. There are many species and hybrids, some of which are readily available to home gardeners. The most common are Lycoris radiata, also known as red spider lily and Lycoris squamigera, also known as resurrection lily.

Pronunciation: LIE-core-iss or lie-CORE-iss

Growing Zones for Lycoris

Most lycoris are reliably hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 7-10; some types, such as Lycoris squamigera (resurrection lily) are hardy to zone 5. 

Choosing a Site to Grow Lycoris

Full sun is needed for best flowering, but the plants also do well in the dappled shade of deciduous trees. Like many other bulbs, lycoris need very well-drained soil. In saturated soil the bulbs may rot. 

Choose a spot among other perennials that will camouflage the lycoris’ foliage as it dies back in summer. That said, be sure to give them a prominent spot where you can enjoy the extravagant late-summer blooms. 

Because the foliage dies back in summer, lycoris isn’t the best choice for containers. However, if your heart is set on growing them in a region outside their hardiness zone, you can plant the bulbs in pots and then move them to a sheltered spot for the winter.

Planting Instructions for Lycoris

You’ll find lycoris bulbs for sale in fall, and this is the best time to plant them. Plan to plant them as soon as possible after purchase. Prepare the planting bed by loosening the soil to a depth of at least 10” and adding compost and/or slow-release fertilizer. Dig a hole about 8” deep. Set the bulb in the hole pointy-end up and then cover the bulb with soil. Space bulbs about 8” apart. Water well after planting to encourage healthy root formation. The plants will sprout the following spring.

Although the plants can be started from seed, it can take up to five years for the plants to flower. For faster bloom, plant bulbs. 

Fertilizer for Lycoris

A thin layer of compost or a scattering of slow-release fertilizer around the plants each spring should provide adequate nutrients in all but the poorest soils. 

Lycoris Pests and Problems

Lycoris plants are generally free of pests and diseases, and they’re also resistant to deer browsing. Bulbs planted in poorly draining soil may suffer from root rot.

Ongoing Care for Lycoris

Water the plants regularly during active growth periods in spring and again in mid to late summer, but hold off on watering when the foliage dies back in early summer. You can tidy up the plants in summer by trimming off dead leaves. The plants will produce additional foliage after blooming; leave this in place to allow the plant to replenish the nutrients stored in the bulb, trimming it off only when it dies back. 

Lycoris are long-lived plants. They don’t like to have their roots disturbed and may take a few years to recover after dividing or transplanting, which should be done in early summer after the spring foliage has died back.

Some popular Surprise Lilies (Lycoris) photos:
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