Plant Profile: Surprise Lilies

Photo by Matilda Adams.

Every spring, Lycoris plants produce green leaves before going dormant. Months later, as if by magic, colorful blooms suddenly appear, long after the leaves are gone. This peculiar flowering habit has earned Lycoris several nicknames—magic lilies, surprise lilies, resurrection lilies, or disappearing lilies—and make them a popular plant for home gardens.

Lycoris, Lycoris sanguinea

Where it comes from

Lycoris is a genus of true bulbs in the Amaryllidaceae (amaryllis) family that includes around 20 species native to eastern and southern Asia and parts of the Middle East. 

Photo by Trenton Almgren-Davis.

What do they look like?

The trumpet-shaped blooms emerge in an outward-facing cluster at the ends of a leafless flowering stalk called a scape and come in a wide range of colors including white, yellow, orange, red, and pink. While straight species plants are the most commonly cultivated, there are also hybrid cultivars available from specialty nurseries.

Photo by Tom Incrocci.

How to care for them

All surprise lilies grow best in well-draining soil with plenty of sun and in general require little care. The best time to divide a clump of surprise lilies is when they are in their dormant period after the foliage has disappeared. Division is typically only required if flowering performance has diminished or if you want to share a few bulbs with family, friends, or neighbors.

Varieties recommended by the Missouri Botanical Garden’s William T. Kemper Center for Home Gardening

Lycoris squamigera. Photo by Tom Incrocci.

The most common surprise lily seen in St. Louis is Lycoris squamigera. This plant produces strap-like, grey-green leaves in spring that die back in summer. The bulbs enter a rest period before producing a 2′ tall flowering scape in the late summer. The blooms are pale pink and fragrant. This plant will naturalize and spread slowly through bulb offsets.

Lycoris caldwellii. Photo courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden PlantFinder.

Lycoris caldwellii is a cold hardy species that blooms in early fall with creamy white to pale yellow flowers on 1.5′ tall scapes. The leaves appear in spring and die back in summer.

Lycoris Sprengeri. Photo by Tom Incrocci.

Lycoris sprengeri features bright pink flowers with lilac to nearly blue highlights atop 1.5′ tall scapes that emerge from late summer into early fall. The leaves appear in spring and die back in summer. This species may require extra winter mulch or a planting location that is protected from the harshest winter conditions since it is marginally hardy here in the St. Louis area.

Lycoris radiata. Photo courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden PlantFinder.

Lycoris radiata differs from the other species listed because the foliage emerges in the fall after the blooming cycle is complete and remains evergreen through the winter before disappearing in spring. These plants are sometimes called red spider lily or hurricane lily. Its red blooms appear during hurricane season in the southern United States where this plant has escaped cultivation and naturalized. Like L. sprengeri, this lycoris species is marginally hardy in the St. Louis area, and does best when planted in a sheltered location so that the foliage and developing flower bud are protected from the coldest winter temperatures.

Justine Kandra, Horticulturist

Catherine Martin, Public Information Officer

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