Late summer bloomers put on a spectacular show

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Have you ever seen a wispy funnel-shaped flower on a collared stem and wanted to know the name of this unusual flower? Well, it could be a Spider Lily. Spider lilies (Lycoris) begin their spectacular show in late summer or early fall, usually after a good downpour. They are quite colorful on their 1 to 2 foot tall stems.

Water lilies remind me of my childhood because I picked them from my mother’s garden and brought them to my teachers. My classmates always found the flowers scenic and unusual with their spider-like blooms. The ones my mother grew and I grow now are red but I’ve read in the catalogs of pink, yellow and white products.

Their botanical name is Lycoris and there are two kinds. The ones I grow are Lycoris radiata. These have flowers appearing in late summer or early fall and as the flowers fade, a mound of foliage appears at the base of the plant, growing from fall through spring. The other type of lycoris is Lycoris squamigera, also called resurrection lily, surprise lily and naked woman. The foliage of these lilies appears in the spring and lasts all summer. Those with fall foliage are hardy to USDA zone 6b, while varieties with spring foliage will take much colder winters, sometimes as far north as zone 3.

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Spider lilies grow from bulbs and are best propagated by division. Divide them over time to prevent the clumps from becoming overcrowded and losing their vigor. I have already divided a few clumps and it is really very easy to do. The first time I was amazed to see all the little bulbs that appeared in the bunch. Some bulbs were really very small and it took several years for these small bulbs to produce flowers. The taller ones bloomed the following year.

When planting, they like soil rich in organic matter and the bulb neck should be planted at ground level or just slightly below ground level. They prefer soil rich in organic matter and, like most bulbs, they like to be drier during their dormant period and a little moisture when foliage is present. It is also best to plant them in late summer or fall. This way the foliage has time to emerge and last through the winter months.

Water lilies benefit from an application of fertilizer. It is best to use a high nitrogen fertilizer like 8-2-4 as this encourages flowering after their dormant period. They can also be fertilized with any good organic fertilizer.

Despite their common name, spider lilies aren't really true lilies.  Spider lilies are actually part of the amaryllis family.

I planted these exotic flower bulbs in several places. I have a group at the entrance to the house in an area where they get morning sun and afternoon shade. There is another group on a steep hill in a grassy area that receives dappled sun during flowering and full sun during the winter months. The third planting is in heavier shade when flowering and some dappled sun in winter. Information in catalogs often says full sun, but none of mine are in full sun when in bloom. Those that receive the most sun during flowering tend to appear earlier and wilt faster. The group that is in a grassy area on the hill must have self seeded years ago because I didn’t plant them there. At the end of the summer I cut the grass in that area just before I think it will emerge because I can’t mow that area again until spring because if I did that I would damage the foliage that emerges after the flowers have faded. It is important to let this foliage grow through the winter as it produces the flower for the following year.

When planting water lily bulbs, make sure you have a number of bulbs in one area. They stand out and make a more impressive sight the more flowers you have at a time. I have a large group under a dogwood tree where the foliage gets sun in the winter and shade in the fall when it blooms. The foliage present makes a nice ground cover during the winter months. The foliage is strap-like leaves resembling a shorter version of mondo grass or liriope.

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Unfortunately, I have deer that roam the garden from time to time and the good news is that I have never seen them disturb my flowers or the foliage and have never had voles eaten them. This is a real plus for me since I have problems with both animals.

You should consider planting some of these wonderful bulbs this fall. Growing up, these were considered transient plants. Today, most bulb catalogs offer these stunted and magical flowers. Now if you are really adventurous you can try some of the other colors. A mail-order company, Plant Delights, offers a very large selection of unusual products. I tend to like the more common reds which are much more readily available. I guess it’s because they remind me of my childhood and because I love exotic flowers with their bright red color.

Betty Montgomery

Betty Montgomery is a master gardener and author of “Hydrangeas: How To Grow, Cultivate & Enjoy” and “A Four-Season Southern Garden.” She can be reached at [email protected]

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