Nothing signals the start to the end of summer like seeing the surprise lily (Lycoris squamigera) bloom. We will start to get calls here shortly from clients asking what are those pink, naked, flowers blooming in people’s yards. Unlike most perennials that produce leaves and blooms at the same time, surprise lilies will produce long, strap-like leaves in the spring only to have the die back by early summer. Then, as if by magic, naked bloom stalks will appear almost overnight giving rise to lavender-pink blooms. Sandra Mason, University of Illinois Extension, sums up surprise lily quite well: “Similar to feuding in-laws the leaves and flowers refuse to appear together”.
Surprise lilies belong in the amaryllis family, Amarylidaceae, and are native to Asia. There are several species and cultivars of surprise lilies available on the market but only L. squamigera is hardy to our area. Growing in full sun, newly planted bulbs can take up to two growing seasons to flower. It is best to plant in grouping of three or more to make an impact when they bloom. However, they are generous multipliers and would benefit from being divided every five or six years. Dividing is best done once they finish flowering.
Another harbinger of fall is the toad lily (Tricyrtis sp.). There are several species and cultivars of toad lilies that do well in our area. What makes this plant special is their ability to flower in the shade starting in the late summer into the fall. They are members of the lily family, Liliaceae, and come from the Eastern Himalayas to the Philippines. The beauty of the toad lily has been compared to orchids thanks to their otherworldly flowers. They grow best part-sun to shade reaching about 24” tall and the same in spread. Some newer introductions such as ‘Samurai’ have variegated foliage adding to the overall interest of the plant. The one cultivar that I have had the most success with is ‘Miyazaki Hybrid’. This particular cultivar has a fitting common name, Artic Orchid, thanks to its white flowers speckled with purple.
Both the toad lily and the surprise lily add great interest to the late summer and early fall garden. They are easy to care for and add a pop of color when most other perennials are finishing blooming. Both should be planted where they can be enjoyed in the garden. Neither one has any serious pest or diseases except for lawnmowers or string-trimers. Surprise lilies have no foliage when they bloom and can easily be missed until it is too late when mowing.