Lycoris / Surprise Lily Planting Guide

Whether you know them as Lycoris, Surprise Lilies, Spider Lilies, or even as Naked Lilies, these unusual and durable bulbs deserve consideration. With flowers that resemble wild combinations of curled ribbon and long eyelashes, the blooms look like nothing else in the garden . . . in a good way. And once settled in, these babies are tough.

In a number of Southeastern states it’s not uncommon, and oh so fortunate, to round a bend and see a sweep of these by an old homestead. It’s clear that they’ve taken care of themselves for years, blooming steadfastly around Labor Day, brightening the landscape.

Don’t have a meadow to colonize? Lycoris spark up garden beds, adding a party flare late in the season when other plants are looking tired. The red variety is winter hardy to zone 5, meaning it’ll grow in three quarters of the country. Wow!

Choosing a Site

Lycoris plants love the sun and are happy with full sun or partial sun. These bulbs are dormant during the summer and spring up in late August and September. One of the common names for these plants is “naked ladies” because the flower stalks precede the development of foliage, leaving “naked” stems. This is helpful to know as you consider design esthetics.

Soil Prep

Lycoris prefer average to moist, but never soggy, soil. A planting site with average to fertile garden soil works well. Digging in same compost before planting is a good idea unless your soil is already very rich. Lycoris prefer to stay in the same spot, undisturbed, for years.

When to Plant Lycoris

Plant outdoors when frost danger has past. Once established, lycoris can manage cold to about 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

How to Plant Lycoris Bulbs

Plant these big bulbs with ½” of the neck exposed. If planted too deep, the bulbs will sprout and grow but are less likely to flower. Tamp down soil and water well to settle the soil around the bulbs. Plant bulbs about 9” apart.

During the Season

These summer-dormant bulbs develop roots early in the year and sit, dormant for months. The bulbs sleep through the heat of summer and then produce wildly exotic flowers in late August or early September. Strappy foliage follows the flowers.

Water sparingly until top growth appears. This is only necessary the first year. After your lycoris are established they’ll manage without supplemental watering.

At the Season’s End

For gardeners in zones 6-10 red lycoris are perennial, successfully overwintering outdoors. (Recent planting indicte hardiness to zone 5 for the red flowering variety with protective winter mulch.) The range for yellow flowering variety, lycoris aurea, extends to zone 7. Fall sprouting foliage for these lycoris dies back in winter in the colder parts of their growing ranges.

Varietal Differences

Red Surprise lilies produce smaller bulbs and are winter hardy through zone 5.

Yellow Surprise lilies produce long strappy leaves up to a yard in length, with a white stripe up the center. These plants are winter hardy through zone 7.

Insider Tips

  1. Unsure about overwintering in your area? Start with Red Surprise lilies; they are more winter hardy.
  2. Cut flowers? You bet! These are fun, unusual and not an option from your local florist.
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Success Snapshot

Light: Full sun to partial sun

Soil: Average

Depth: Plant leaving 1/2" of bulb neck exposed

Water: Average moisture

Uses: Borders, mixed beds and along walkways

Tip: Plant for the long haul, lycoris don't like to be moved

GUIDE: Lycoris / Surprise Lily Planting Guide

They Start Out Looking Like This: