Lycoris in sun or shade

Jim McKenney
Mon, 28 Aug 2006 05:49:17 PDT
First of all, let me apologize if this turns out to be a double posting. I
sent this to the list by mistake as an HTML document earlier. 

John Grimshaw asked, with respect to mass displays of Lycoris squamigera "
But my question is, how do such displays develop? Is it from seed?"

One of the things about Lycoris squamigera of which younger people have no
reason to be aware is its changed commercial status in recent years. There
was a time when it was, to use the local expression, "dirt cheap". I did a
double take the first time I saw bulbs being offered for $8.00 each. I can
remember when they were a quarter (i.e. twenty-five cents)! 

In the past, this plant was evidently not all that highly esteemed. It's
nothing new: it's been in our gardens since the nineteenth century, and from
the beginning it was known as a hardy garden plant even in the north. If it
has significant pests or diseases, I have not heard of them. Once planted,
it's likely to persist indefinitely. Knowledgeable growers probably regarded
it as an understudy for Amaryllis belladonna, a distant second best to be
sure in my opinion. It was often marketed as a gimmick: some of the names
used for it, which range from appeals to the pious ("resurrection lily") to
the salacious ("naked ladies") suggest that copy writers had a good time
with this one. To its ultimate disadvantage, the plant became widely known
as hardy amaryllis: that name only called attention to its shortcomings in
comparison to fragrant, elegant Amaryllis belladonna. 

Lycoris squamigera is what I think of as a "boy's plant": it has what it
takes to appeal to the relatively unsophisticated expectations of a child.
It's the sort of tough, nearly indestructible plant a doting aunt or
grandparent can give to one of the young members of the family in the hope
of encouraging an interest in gardening. 

Please don't regard the above as faint praise as I go on to say how much I
like this plant. Taken on its own merits, it's one of those plants I would
not want to be without. But the simple truth is that one very rarely sees it
used in local gardens a way which brings its best qualities to the fore. It
often seems to have been sited as an afterthought, with little regard for
its companions. Nor is that surprising: although it is capable of making a
big splash, splash it certainly is: the blooming season is relatively brief,
and most gardeners apparently have not regarded this brief display as worthy
of more than superficial treatment in the garden. 

Someone long ago suggested growing them among Hosta - I would use H.
ventricosa in particular. And they would be lovely rising over a wide mass
of one of the taller forms of Ageratum houstonianum or Iris dichotoma.  

Now to address John's question directly: how did those gardens which display
this plant in masses acquire such largesse? Almost certainly by simply
planting the once inexpensive bulbs in masses at the very beginning. I know
a small local garden where the two dominant plants are Matteuccia
struthiopteris and Lycoris squamigera: there are probably many hundreds of
each. The Matteuccia were obtained inexpensively from a mail order dealer
far to the north who sold collected plants, and at the time the garden was
planted the Lycoris was comparatively inexpensive, too. 

Lycoris squamigera does not as far as I am aware set viable seed under
garden conditions; in fact, it has long been regarded as a hybrid of Lycoris
sprengeri (which does set viable seed readily and which it resembles so
much). So the big displays one sees are not the result of propagation by
seed. The bulbs divide readily and grow lustily in our climate. It's a real
job to dig an old clump, especially if the bulbs have worked their way down
into the soil. The culture of this plant is little different than that of
garden daffodils, and with that in mind, it's a mystery why they are now so

The same might be said of Sternbergia lutea - and for the same reasons.

Jim McKenney
Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, USDA zone 7, where it's a good thing the
naked ladies make their departure well before the naked boys show up!   

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