Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Garden Journal 7/28/09:
Growing and Loving Surprise Lilies (aka Naked Ladies, Magic Lilies, Spider Lilies, and at Least Nine Other Names)

This old time favorite flower requires virtually no care (more photos here).

Realization of the Day:
It's hard to imagine a more beautiful flower that is so easy to grow.

That is actually what the informative site Floridata says about surprise lilies, which pretty much sums them up for me. But if you'd like to know a little more about these robust and vigorous (and so pretty!) plants, here's some information.

Surprise Lilies go by many other names, including Naked Lady (because the trumpet shaped flowers bloom atop 2-foot tall naked stems), Nekkid Lady, Magic Lily (because the flowers seem to pop out of the ground like magic), Spider Lily, Mystery Lily, Resurrection Lily, Hardy Amaryllis, Guernsey Lily, Autumn Lycoris, Hurricane Lady, Pink Lady, and Pink Flamingo Flowers.

Since this is my tenth summer on the farm and I'm still surprised each year when our one clump of them pops up next to the front yard fence, I always think of them surprise lilies. And what a nice surprise they are.

A member of the amaryllis family, surprise lilies have been cultivated for centuries in their native Japan. They were first introduced to American gardeners around 1880, and the most well known variety here—which is what I have—is the pink surprise lily, Lycoris squamigera.

The daffodil-like leaves emerge in late winter or early spring and then wither and die away. The plants go dormant (and need no water) until the flowers emerge in mid-summer (hence the 'surprise'), which allows them to survive prolonged periods of summer drought.

These leaves are actually other plants which conveniently cover the nakedness.

I've always been partial to plants that will 'persist for years once established.' Surprise lilies are hardy to USDA Zones 5-10 and require virtually no care. I remember the first time I saw them blooming in long rows along an old highway in Sonoma County, California. They do well in full sun, part shade, and even heavy shade and will thrive in both sandy and heavy clay soils.

The blooms are long lasting and make good cut flowers. The plants are mildly toxic, which may be part of the reason they're touted as deer resistant, though when Cary was a baby she made a beeline straight for the blooms and survived just fine. Other than her, I've never noticed any pests or insects bothering my plants.

Surprise lilies produce large bulbs (about 2 inches across) that multiply quickly and can be divided every 3 to 5 years. Buy bulbs in spring and fall or beg some from a friend's garden. I've never divided mine, but I probably should try it, especially since I wouldn't mind expanding my little patch.

Dig up the bulbs in spring—when it's easy to see the yellowing leaves—or after the blooms fade in August or September. Plant your bulbs in clusters as soon as possible after digging them up, 1 to 7 inches deep (the colder your climate, the deeper you'll want to plant) anywhere you'd like a showy summer display. If you don't mind a few wilting leaves, you can even plant them under the sod in your lawn, mowing around the stalks when they bloom.

Your surprise lilies may not flower for the first two years, and depending on weather conditions, they may not flower every subsequent year (which means a 'surprise' for you when they do). One source I found said the closer you plant the bulbs, the sooner they'll bloom, which may be why they make good potted plants.

Do you have surprise lilies in your garden? Any growing tips, info to add, or other nicknames to share?

Previously posted surprise lily photos:
8/4/05: Surprise Lilies Are Also Known as Naked Ladies
Surprise Lilies Attacked!
Surprise! Cary Didn't Eat All the Lilies
7/28/09: There Are Naked Ladies in My Front Yard!

Information sources: Floridata, University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, Wisconsin Master Gardener Program.

©, the flowering foodie farm blog where we're thankful for the previous gardener here whose meager plantings of various hardy bulbs decades ago (like the irises and those beloved daffodils that just keep spreading) are still providing so much beauty and joy.


  1. We have some that insist on coming up in our sidewalk patch, which would be fine if they weren't immediately decimated by peeing dogs. It's been a long road to relocating them since they keep coming up where we think we've gotten them all out.

    I guess they really want to live in the shade of a dog's leg.

    Round here a lot of people call them Pink Ladies, but I think you know we call them Nekkid Ladies because we're *that way*.

  2. My husband calls them Back to School flowers because they bloom right before school starts. For the same reason, they're not his favorites.

  3. I will certainly be planting Surprise lilies next time after reading this post. I love lilies of almost any sort (particularly water lilies, but that's obviously not practical), and these are lovely. As you said, the fact that they are minimal-care plants makes it all the more reason to get some in the ground quickly and enjoy!

  4. The first spring in our home was such fun; we found daffodils, lilies of the valley, crocuses, tulips, and more...rhubarb, green onions...all this in a small city lot!

  5. I'm new around here...and new to gardening! But I have big plans.

    We have a few of these lillies at my parents' house. I've always loved them. So happy and sunny. I have this very clear memory of being a little girl and pointing out the flowers to my mom one day when she had friends over: "Look, Mommy! Naked Ladies in the front yard!" You can imagine the reaction.

  6. Although I've heard many of the names, I've always called mine pop-up lilies. They are just popping up this week.... what a treat!

  7. In my neck of the woods the lilies are called resurection lilies. I have always loved them.

  8. I too have some lovely lilies in the garden here in the UK. The scent on a summer's evening is delicious. Have a look at my blog
    if you get the chance as a fellow vegetable gardener.

  9. I will definitely be planting some of these in my yard next year. They're beautiful. Knowing they can survive our crazy Missouri weather makes them even prettier! Thanks for the info!

  10. This has nothing to do with surprise plants (although I do love volunteers). It's been a few weeks since I checked out your gardening blog, although I check your foodie blog just about every day. (As an aside - what are you cooking these days?) ANYway, I want you to know that I copied and pasted your new gardening motto into my Word program and made it into a sign for myself. Thank you for the encouragement to reduce frustrations - life provides enough without my cooperation! Another of my mottos is Progress, Not Perfection. These things help! Your blogs are good things in my life.

  11. My daughter sent me your blog because I had some of these lilies appear in our wetlands among the grasses. I think I will try to dig them up once they flower.

  12. My folks had " naked ladies" growing in their so. calif. yard for 60 some years. I imagine they are still there and starting to bloom. When the family house was closed I transplanted quite a few to my garden and they thrive in my garden today and are about to bloom. They bring a sense of continuity to my world.

  13. Hi: OMG! I sure hope you can help! Ok - on the Surprise lillys - nekkid ladies - whatever you want to call them...I finally got some today - they had already bloomed and we dug the bulbs up! I have a bed already prepared for them and now I am getting e-mails ( I had posted on Craigslist) looking for them - saying this is NOT the time of year to plant/transplant them. Now I am terrified that we have dug all these beautiful plants only to have them die! Is this true??? I was going to "re-plant" them tomorrow - making 2 days they had been out of the ground - is that ok? Please let me know what I should do to keep them alive...
    Any info would be deeply appreciated!
    Northwest Arkansas - Zone 7

  14. Hi Everybody!
    Thanks for all the fun comments. I love hearing about your own gardens and growing experiences.

    Hi Zona,
    You're very welcome. And thank you for another great motto - Progress, Not Perfection is one I definitely need to make into a sign for myself! :)

    Hi Rose,
    If the flowers had already bloomed before you dug up the bulbs, I think they should be fine. Enjoy!

  15. I have 236 surprise lilies in my yard. It is May in Missouri and the leaves are beginning to die down. Is it alright to clip the leaves before they completely die? Even though I love the lilies, they have taken over the flower bed and other favorite flowers have died. After reading this blog I know that I should split them this fall and move them to other areas. I have usually let the leaves completely die before I clip them but is that necessary? Georgalu

    1. Hi Georgalu,
      Wow, 236? They must be beautiful! I only have a few in my yard, so I've never bothered to cut them back after blooming, but I don't think it would hurt the plants. I know you can trim back other bulbs like irises and daffodils. Maybe you should just do a test patch this year and see what happens?

    2. I think I read that the leaves dying back puts nutrients back into the bulb for next year. In the case of this lily it probably gives it the nourishment to push up those beautiful flowers.

    3. I braid the leaves as I do the Dafodils until they completely die. This way my other plants have room and sun to grow.

  16. Hello,

    I live in Kansas and have many surprise lilies in my garden. They continue to come back and multiply with NO maintenance. I cut the foliage back soon after it comes up (a few inches from the ground), even before it turns yellow because to me it looks messy. This has never kept them from blooming, they still always pop up in late summer and come back again the next year. I find that I sometimes dig them up and throw them away because I get too many. They seem to thrive in cold winter and dry, hot summer. P.

  17. good morning, its 6:15 am july 30th. eureka springs arkansas. i have over a thousand, probably more after tonights rain, naked ladies showing in my yard. i actually have over 2 thousand bulbs, but they dont all come up every year. im not bragging or exaggerating, this is for real. ive been spreading them for 13 years. im hoping some day national geographics magazine come photo them, or some mag, because its a spectacular sight.:) last year was the first year that i can remember that they didnt happen. we were in our 2nd year of severe drought. they need a deep summer rain to activate them, rain never really came till it was too late. rain usually happens in the first 2 weeks of july and by the end of july they are in full bloom. this past two week in northwest ark. we've had great rain equaling a great showing. hence a naked lady party!
    i have found that they can be transplant almost any time, they are virtually indestructible. i dont think they like to be planted too deep, i let the tips of them be at surface level, or just below. i put 5-7 in each hole they do like to be clustered and touching. ive dug up clusters with 30 or more bulbs in one clump. they come apart by wiggling them loose.
    they are the first green coming out of winter and i start cutting them down when they first start to yellow around the first week in may.
    i have found that there is something majic about rain water, ive tried to activate with city water, it just doesnt do it. nothing replaces a day long summer rain.
    im beside my self with joy every year at this time. and my town loves the annual naked lady party.


March 2013 update: My apologies for the inconvenience - I know word verification is a pain - but I've had to turn it on to help stop the ridiculous number of anonymous spam comments I've been getting every day. Thanks for your understanding.

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I try my best to answer all questions, but sometimes it takes me a few days to get to them. And sometimes, I'm sorry to say, they fall through the cracks, and for that I sincerely apologize.

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