All You Need To Know About Lycoris

All You Need To Know About Lycoris

with Tony Avent

By Published September 2022

Join Tony Avent as he discusses the fascinating genus Lycoris (aka Surprise Lily, Hurricane Lily, or Spider Lily). In this walk through our lycoris trial beds, Tony explains what they are, where they came from, and how to grow them. You will also see many new varieties that are currently in production at the Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, NC.

Lycoris mentioned in this video:

 

Video Transcription

Okay welcome to lycoris world. We're in August now, toward the end of August, and this is peak flowering time for lycoris. Lycoris is a genus of bulbs in the amaryllis family so people may know the florist hippeastrums that are commonly called 'Amaryllis'. They may know rain lilies, a number of other plants that are in the amaryllid family. Lycoris is a genus that's been grown in this country for well over 100 years but still is not really appreciated because most people only know of two... Lycoris x squamigera, which is one that's been around for many years, and Lycoris radiata. But there's so much more. There's also a lot of misinformation about lycoris and that's sort of what we decided to try to figure out... is how to... what was real information, what was not. Now we were fortunate to accumulate a fairly good collection and then, back a dozen years ago, we were able to acquire the largest collection in the world from a breeder who had also got it from another breeder who had been breeding since the 1940s.

The Origin of Surprise Lilies

We now have integrated that all in and we've studied these and we're working on writing a paper about lycoris. So, a couple bits of information. One, if you look it up online, it says there's probably, most places will tell you, there are 23 species which would be a naturally occurring population that is not a hybrid. In fact, there are only six species. You can divide lycoris into two main groups - those whose leaves come up in spring and those whose leaves come up in fall. Of the fall species, there are only two - radiata and aurea. Radiata being the red orange one which is the common one. Aurea being sort of an orangey yellow. Of the spring species, we have four. We have longituba which has long white flowers. We have sprengeri, which has pink flowers with blue tips. We have chinensis, which looks exactly like aurea, exactly, except the leaves come up in spring instead of fall. And then we have sanguinea which is a species that really does terrible in hot summer climates and that has small reddish orange flowers. Lycoris are native to primarily China. They've got the lion's share of the lycoris. One in Japan, maybe, the DNA is telling us that it actually came from China a thousand years ago. Some in Korea but like I say, in Taiwan, but really China's got the main bulk of the lycoris.

So, let's take a look at some of the lycoris because we are here in peak season. This first one we see is a Lycoris straminea. Straminea is a hybrid group name for crosses between chinensis and radiata pumila. You've got some of the yellow orange from chinensis blending with the red from radiata pumila. Now lycoris' bloom season is from early July till October. Each clone blooms a different time. We currently grow right at 700 different selected clones, so we've got a long flowering season. If you own one lycoris, you're probably going to see two to three weeks depending on the weather. What lycoris like, they like a dry period in summer. They like hot summers followed by a wet period. The minute you have rains, that's when the lycoris explode and the neat thing about it from the time they come out of the ground until they flower is generally four days. So, you will not see it one day and if you don't walk by for six days, you've missed it in many cases or you've caught the tail end of the flowers. Each bulb underground multiplies. So, you can see here, this started out with one bulb that's now multiplied to four blooming spikes and if you were to dig there's probably a dozen bulbs in there. There's a lot in there so not every spike flowers every single year. Some set seeds, some don't, so, depending on the hybrid, some are sterile, some are not.

So here is one of those species we talked about. This is one of the spring species, Lycoris sprengeri, and you see the flowers, which are this amazing pink with blue tips. And some seedlings of spring are almost entirely blue with a little bit of pink. Others are mostly pink with a little bit of blue. But really amazing plants and those have been used to create a lot of hybrids such as the Lycoris roseas. So rosea is a cross between the radiata I mentioned that was used in the first one, and the sprengeri. You can see the blue tips, but they're very faded. So rosea is a group, we've right now 200 cultivars of rosea. They bloom over a period of two months so you can have a rosea that blooms, another one that comes into bloom as soon as that one is finished, another one after that. And they vary in colors from a pink with blue, to a red with blue, to almost red depending on how much of each genes they have. When you make a cross you can get something that looks close to both parents or something completely in between. So, this is, this is just one that's actually not even named yet, but you can see this one's a little smaller here. Height varies. This one's a little darker so we know that's just probably back crossed to more radiata and it's got a lot of red in there. But you can just see the variation as well as the bloom time. This little, short one here... this one only matures at 10 inches tall. You can really find an incredible array just in one group of hybrids.

Lycoris Leaf Emergence Times Dictate Winter Hardiness

Now the leaf emergence times dictate the hardiness. Typically, the spring emerging leaves are going to be the most winter hardy because the leaves don't have to go through the wintertime above ground. So typically, the spring leaf ones, the longitubas, the sprengeris, the chinensis, sanguineas, those will go up into mostly Chicago, Minnesota. I mean you will see lycoris all over Zone 3 and 4. But the fall ones are pretty much Zone 6b, 7a, and south because those leaves come up in September and October. And if you have a hard winter, they're going to get fried which means no flowers the next year because you cooked off all of your food preparation for the bulb. So, you really have to look at depending on where you're located.

Okay this is longituba we mentioned. Longituba is named because it has a long tube at the base. These tubes can measure anywhere from an inch and a half to two and a half inches and that's the tube. And the way they tell and measure that is, you take the pedals off and from the point the pedal breaks from there to where the, this is the ovary to here, that's the tube and so we actually measure the tube. And that's a technique that we use to help us identify the different plants.

Now lycoris typically like part sun to light shade. What we've found is they grow taller in light shade and generally, by 25 to 30 percent. So, if you have lycoris and you want them taller, put them in shade. They actually bloom better in light shade, maybe an hour or two of sun, that's where you're going to be ideal. Out here in full sun they're exposed to the elements so if we get a really hard winter, we will have foliage damage here which means very little bloom the next year. For people that have trouble getting lycoris to bloom, most likely you've got them in too much sun. Now you can go to the opposite end and get them in too much shade. When I say shade, we're talking about deciduous shade. In the wintertime, the trees drop their leaves so all you've got is the branch structure providing shade. You do not want to put a lycoris under evergreen shade which would be under hollies, conifers, they're not going to like that because they never get any light to the foliage. The foliage has to have enough light to produce growth and size up the bulb for flowering but not so much that it cooks the foliage and then you get no flowers.

Another Lycoris straminea. Now the one we looked at earlier was orange, this one is yellow. This is probably a little more typical and that would mean it has more blood from the lycoris chinensis parent and almost none showing up from the radiata parent, which would be red. So that's the beauty of making these hybrids, there is just a tremendous amount of variation.

Here's another, this is just an unnamed seedling of Lycoris rosea. You can see again and look how heavy that flowers. We keep a lot of data as to which ones flower consistently because there are some that will flower every few years and then there are others that consistently put on an incredible show. And that's part of our selection process, is to have some that really put on a good consistent show every single year. There are a lot that have not even popped up out of the ground yet. So again, here we are in late August, you can see there are entire blocks here that nothing is up and there's one starting to pop today. Some, so again, these will continue to pop all the way through the end of September early October. So that's the beauty is, lycoris just have this tremendously long season. It's not like daffodils or tulips. They pretty much all come up the same time. With lycoris, you've got so many months. That's really quite incredible.

Here's a fairly unusual hybrid. This is called Lycoris rosensis. And rosensis is a cross between the ones we showed you earlier, the rosea, which itself is a hybrid between sprengeri and radiata, and that was crossed onto Lycoris chinensis, the yellow one. Now what we found is when you cross a fall leaf species with the spring leaf species the results are always fall leafed. And you have to go back and backcross a second time onto a spring one to get the flower, the leaf emergent time, to move back. So, second cross, two-part spring, one-part fall, gives you something that emerges in December. When you get to three-part spring and one-part fall it goes back to emerging in spring. So, you can create something that really emerges during a wide season based on your breeding.

Where Are All of the Lycoris Breeders?

Now I say breeding, most lycoris from seed are typically going to be five years to flower. So, it's a long time. So that's why there's not a lot of lycoris breeders. Because five years to first flowering, then you've got another five years of evaluation, so you've got 10 years before you ever try to get something on the market. So that's why there's not a lot of lycoris breeders. We've had several in the past. They've been, probably the most of them have been in Japan. Kamaura nursery was an incredible breeder in Japan. In the US, Sam Caldwell was a very famous breeder, as I mentioned, from the 40s all the way up through the 70s. His stuff was passed on to a breeder in California, Phil Adams, who continued his work. So that's really where the bulk of our collection came from although we have a lot of material from Japan. There's a lot of lycoris collectors now in China that are able to go make selections out of the wild, when they're in bloom, and that's going to result in a whole lot of other crazy new hybrids that we've never seen before. So really excited about what's coming in. Lycoris are very interesting, especially the hybrids.

Here's another straminea. So, the first day it opens, here's the flower, it's yellow. As the flower ages each day, it shows more of the radiata parent, the pink. So, it's hard to imagine that those two are the same flower and this, in another day, will be completely pink or rosy colored. It's really neat to watch these colors as they morph through the day. Also, a lot of selections are being made for the stalk color. Some stalks are green, but I love these that are almost a cinnamon to up to a purple are really quite incredible.

Here's a another lycoris rosea. So, we mentioned earlier, we showed you the pink ones, so that's been back-crossed several times to radiata, the more of the reddish orange, and it looks very much like a radiata except with just a tiny bit of blue flush in there. See again more of this is a 'Cranberry Charm', that's another rosea. See how nice those are and how many flowers you have in a single area.

Now here is one of the spring blooming hybrids. So, I mentioned there are four species. This is a cross between the sprengeri, which we looked at was the pink one with the blue tips, and chinensis, which is the yellow orange. So, what we notice is the buds show the blue. In the blue you see the tips of the buds are only where you see the blue. You see a little bit of pink on the back of the petals you see the pink flush on what we call the petal keels and then the flower color itself starts out yellow when it opens and ages to a creamy white.

And we call this hybrid sprengensis, Sprengeri chinensis, really an incredible plant. I just love the contrast between the open flowers and the buds which is quite amazing.

This is another hybrid of the spring bloomers. This is Lycoris caldwellii, named after the late Sam Caldwell, who I mentioned which was sort of the godfather of lycoris breeding. And Lycoris x caldwellii is a hybrid between chinensis and longituba. So, two spring leaf species so this is incredibly hardy this should be fine in the coldest zones. Beautiful plant. Grows very tall and gets that height from the longituba apparent which can be up to close to three feet tall. Really quite amazing.

You can see here, more of the sprengensis we just looked at and here's some more of the sprengeri we looked at earlier. This is one we call 'Soft Cloud'. This has a particularly large flower. This flower is almost double a typical sprengeri so that would be a good one to use for breeding to continue to get the flowers larger and larger. Okay let's go look at a couple more. This really shows the diversity of this cross, Lycoris rosea. So, this is one called 'Mini Me'. So, you see how small that flower is and very dainty compared to some of the larger ones. Let's do a side by side and we can see the difference here. Okay, so that's the size difference. So 'Mini me' is just a much smaller, much more dainty plant from the very same hybrid so the diversity in crossing is just quiet, quite amazing.

This is one of Sam Caldwell’s I mentioned. Most of his stuff has never been introduced even though his breeding was done 60 years ago. He just was not interested in commercialization so that's sort of what we're doing now is in the process of cataloging these, evaluating these for garden potential. And this is one we've called 'Magenta Magic' beautiful things, look at the buds, just these beautiful dark red buds with the blue tips and open up to this wonderful magenta flower.

This is Lycoris radiata, this is one of the fall species. Of the two we mentioned, this is probably the most common lycoris in existence in the world today. It's a very, very widespread thing. It varies a lot, not in terms of color, but in height and bloom time. We've got some that do not bloom till the end of September, first of October. This particular one starts in early July. So that's why you always want to buy a named clone so you know we're getting the early one, we're getting the mid-season one, we're getting the late one, because then, you can have a succession of flowers in your garden just with the same species.

Okay we looked earlier to Lycoris rosensis, this is the rosea hybrid with chinensis, here's another one. Very different look. That one had bigger petals, this has more of the narrow chinensis petals. This is one called 'Three Towers Mirroring the Moon'. This is a Chinese hybrid but really amazing to watch it, how it emerges one color and then ages to a lighter pink. And this just gives you an idea of what it looks like when you plant a lot of them. This is, these are both Lycoris straminea. This is ‘Caldwell’s Original’ which is one of the finest lycoris we've ever grown. It also emerges yellow, ages to the pink striping. This thing is the best fall emerge, fall leaf emerger, for great foliage survivability through the winter. It just looks incredible when this comes out.

This one here is one of our introductions. This is 'Strawberry Lemonade'. This is what lycoris look like when you don't divide them every year like we do for production. This is how dense they can get. It's really quite extraordinary. The flowers, especially when they start picking up that peach combined with the cinnamon stems, are absolutely incredible.

When to Transplant Lycoris

So, I hope that gets you a little bit of interest in the genus Lycoris. They're incredibly easy to grow. You can transplant them pretty much any time the ground is not frozen. We transplant them in full flower, they don't miss a beat. It's really quite incredible. They will survive very poor drainage. They will survive in the driest conditions. They will survive pretty much anywhere. They won't flower well in dense shade and some of the cultivars that don't winter leaf well will not survive full on sun but here, our garden is out in full sun so we're baking them under the worst conditions. They look pretty amazing. You typically, commercially you're going to have a hard time buying these and we generally don't recommend you buy dormant bulbs. Some of them really don't do well when the bulbs have been stored long term and that's why everything we offer through Plant Delights comes in a container already growing with roots on it, in most cases, and the survivability is just so, so much better. But we hope this gives you a little idea of the diversity in this incredible genus and I hope you really want to try some of these in your home garden.

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