PLANT LIFE 1962 pp. 76-85.


Lycorises are at once the most exciting and exasperating things I grow. Their habits are intriguing, since the blooms come at one time and the leaves at another. If "beauty is its own excuse for being," the flowers of most species amply justify their existence. But some of them have the annoying habit of refusing to bloom in spite of my best efforts to satisfy them.

From July till early October I trek frequently over the home grounds, peering anxiously at bare earth around label stakes to catch a first glimpse of fat "spearheads" pushing upward, promising glory to come. Sometimes they're right on schedule and delight me by showing up in profusion. Then again, certain ones may be off season, few in number or missing altogether. Newly acquired bulbs may take a fearful length of time to get established. I had one species for six years before it bloomed. Reasons for delay and failures are evident at times and at other times they are not.

The "Magic Lilies" (L. squamigera) I have known since childhood. The first species other than that, that I can recall planting was a "red spider-lily" bulb given me in 1927. It was of course, L. radiata, but at the time we thought it was Nerine sarniensis.

Since returning home in 1946 from World War II I have planted the different lycorises offered in the usual trade catalogs, plus a number of others secured through friendship with bulb importers. Records on these plantings have been kept through the years. Then I've learned much from reading and from talking with fellow lycoris fanciers. But I still confess an enormous ignorance of the special requirements of some of these bulbs.

Currently there seems to be a gratifying increase of interest in lycorises. Dr. Hamilton Traub has done fine work toward clearing up problems of nomenclature and identification, but among the commercial dealers there is still confusion in these fields. We still need answers to cultural problems with some species, and I hope other growers will contribute experience reports for publication in HERBERTIA. The following observations and notes will serve to bring up to date certain matters on which I have reported previously in this publication.


To date (December, 1960) not one of my hybrid (I hope) seedling lycorises has bloomed, and my patience is wearing a little thin. First planned crosses were made in 1953, but the few seedlings resulting must have been left too long crowded in their original pot, for they never made normal growth. Pollinations in 1954, '55 and '56, however, gave me dozens of husky young bulbs. Some of the L. radiata x L. sprengeri and the reciprocal cross bulbs I really expected to see in bloom this past year, but they disappointed me.

Probably in ground beds in a milder climate, seedling lycorises will bloom quicker—when around five years old. I still start my seeds in pots, wintered in a cold greenhouse, but now shift one- and two-year bulbs to a protected ground bed for growing on. This should speed up things.

As reported in HERBERTIA for 1958, I have both failures and apparent successes in attempting to get viable seeds by crossing various lycoris species. Since that report, several other seemingly successful cross-pollinations have been effected, so that my complete list of hybrid (?) bulbs growing along to blooming size is now as follows:

L. haywardi x L. sanguinea and reciprocal
L. haywardi x L. "sperryi" and reciprocal
L. radiata x L. haywardi
L. radiata x L. sprengeri and reciprocal
L. radiata x L. "sperryi"
L. sprengeri x L. haywardi
L. sprengeri x L. "sperryi"

In addition there are a few small lots of bulbs of uncertain parentage. The L. radiata used is a fertile strain.

Proof of actual successful hybrids, of course, will come only with their blooming. Meanwhile it seems to me that here is one of the most open fields of horticultural endeavor—especially for gardeners in the Lower South. Anyone interested in details on simple hybridizing techniques will find accounts of my own experimental work in the aforementioned 1958 HERBERTIA and in Bulletin 5 (March 1960) of the Louisiana Society for Horticultural Research (available for $1.50 from Mrs. U. B. Evans, Haphazard Plantation, Ferriday, La.).


Information on the hardy golden lycoris that I wrote about in the 1958 HERBERTIA had been supplied me at the time by people in the Nashville, Tennessee area who knew it. Since then I have had opportunity to get acquainted with it first-hand, having observed its growth and bloom for three years. This is a wonderfully beautiful lycoris and valuable, too, because of its hardiness.

In brief, the history is that in 1925 a Nashville woman, the late Mrs. Henry Sperry, collected bulbs of what she called an "orange spiderlily" in the hills near Huchow, China, while visiting her daughter, a Methodist missionary stationed there. Mrs. Sperry brought them home, and for more than 30 years they grew and were treasured just as pretty flowers by her family and a few friends. No one knew that they were lycorises. In 1957 they were called to my attention, and I felt at once that here was something unusual. One of the greatest thrills in years of gardening came in August, 1958, when I saw a clump with four fine scapes in bloom in the Nashville garden of Miss Aileen Bishop.

Fig. 14. Lycoris "sperryi" in garden clump. Nashville, Tenn. Aug. 15, 1958.
Scapes 24" to 31" tall; umbels 7" to 8 1/2" across. Photo by Sam Caldwell.

Lycoris "sperryi," a name we are using for convenience until it is properly identified or named, is a big and showy flower, in general resembling L. aurea. Scapes have varied in height from 22 to 31 inches, topped with umbels seven and a half to eight inches across, made up in most cases of six flowers. However, one five-flowered and one seven-flowered umbel have been observed among some 20 scapes that I've seen. Individual flowers are large—three and a half to four inches across and flattened segments measure three-eighths to one-half inch in width. The color is rather stronger than in L. aurea and is close to ''strong orange yellow," Munsell Hue 7.5YR 7/11 on the Nickerson Color Fan. The blooms are fertile, setting very large seeds—to three-eighths of an inch in diameter—to their own pollen and apparently crossing with several other species.

Leaves look much like those of L. squamigera but are notable for their late appearance. In fact, the leaves of L. "sperryi" and of the new L. chinensis, both pushing up in early March, are the very last of the ''spring foliage'' lycorises to show up in my plantings. This accounts partly for their hardiness, since the leaves naturally escape the coldest winter weather.

From the first it was quite clear that L. "sperryi" is different from and far hardier than both L. aurea and L. traubii, the two well known yellow-flowered species. I thought, however, that it would probably turn out to be identical to L. chinensis, the newly named hardy yellow lycoris growing at the USDA Plant Introduction Garden in Glenn Dale, Maryland. As yet it has not been possible to make a direct comparison of fresh blooms (my one bulb of L. chinensis has never flowered), but foliage comparisons and certain other evidence tend to indicate at this time that they are not the same.

Lycoris "sperryi" — or whatever its final designation may be—will be most important in extending northward the zone in which a yellow lycoris may be grown outdoors. I regret that there is absolutely no supply of bulbs at this time. The very few people in Nashville who have them will not part with them. And at best, the number here must be small. In 1958 Miss Bishop allowed me to dig and reset one of the two clumps in her garden. We were able to learn that it had been planted originally in 1942, presumably with one bulb. Yet after 16 years, when I lifted the clump there were only five large bulbs and one small offset.

I collect all seeds and have distributed a few seedling bulbs. Sadly, the entire 1960 seed crop was eaten by a chipmunk. Whether conditions will ever be so that we can get bulbs out of China, I do not know. Mrs. Sperry's daughter tells me that they were fairly plentiful in the hills and mountains between Huchow and Hangchow in Chekiang Province.


During the past year or two a few American bulb dealers have been offering "Lycoris cinnabarina." The name also has appeared in the wholesale catalog of the Van Tubergen firm in Holland, from whom, I suppose, our dealers secured their bulbs. My impression is that botanists do not recognize this as a valid name, but hearing the plant described as "an orange L. radiata," I added a few bulbs to my collection a year ago. They were small, much like those of L. sanguinea, and on the whole have been slow to make any kind of start. Very little foliage has been produced, and I anticipate a wait of at least two years for bloom. My guess is that it will resemble L. sanguinea.

In August of this year I received three nice bulbs of L. kiushiana from B. Y. Morrison, Pass Christian, Mississippi, who had secured them direct from a bulb fancier in Japan. These I shall watch with interest. One Japanese authority gives it species status; another describes it as a larger flowered variety of L. sanguinea.

Incidentally, I had known of Mr. Morrison and his USDA and American Horticultural Society work for years, but met him personally only last fall when I stopped for a day at ''Back Acres," the fascinating home, garden and nursery near Pass Christian, over which he is a guiding spirit. It was a joy to find someone else as nutty about odd plants—and especially lycorises—as I am. I envy him the balmy Gulf Coast climate where lycoris leaves grow lush and bulbs wax fat and bloom much better than they do for me. But I gathered that some species are reluctant to flower even in that favored spot.

By far the most interesting new lycoris that I grew in 1960 also came from Mr. Morrison, under the simple designation, "White No. 1." [Fig. 15] He has numerous bulbs supposed to bear "white" flowers, secured at various times from New Orleans seed stores, from other commercial sources and from southern farm women. My own experience with lycorises of this sort—bulbs bought under such labels as "alba," ''albiflora,'' ''albiflora carnea,'' "albiflora rosea," and the like—is that most of them run uniformly to the salmony pastel type that Dr. Traub named L. elsiae (HERBERTIA, 1958). Mr. Morrison has plenty of that kind, all right, but he also gets many variants. I saw a Kodachrome of one large clump in which flowers ranged all the way from white through cream, apricot and pinkish tints to quite deep salmon. And during the past bloom season I had wonderfully enthusiastic "lycoris bulletins" from him telling of pale, clear yellows.

Bulbs he sent me as "White No. 1" and "White No. 2" were planted in a deep box in my small greenhouse, where they flowered in late August. Delicately tinted flowers of this sort look different in different lights, tend to change from day to day and finally fade to near white. It is difficult to record on color film, on paper with the aid of a color chart, or even in the mind, a precise impression of the exact colors. When "White No. 2" opened I thought it was typical L. elsiae; the form was the same and the color was about as I remembered it. But later, when my own L. elsiae bloomed I concluded that "White No. 2" actually had been a deeper pink—at least, in the fresh flowers.

Fig. 15. — Lycoris (White No. 1), an unidentified lycoris bought in New Orleans seed store by B. Y. Morrison.
It somewhat resembles both L. elsiae and L. houdyshelii. Photo by Sam Caldwell.

There is no doubt, however, that ''White No. 1" is distinct and different from L. elsiae. Segments are broader and much more reflexed and rolled back at the tips. Long-extending stamens and pistils give a width of over eight inches to the umbel, making it a larger lycoris than L. elsiae. The three scapes produced on my bulbs were respectively 11, 14 and 16 inches high and had five, six and six flowers to the umbel. Color at first is a soft pinkish yellow—not greatly different from L. elsiae coloring but with more yellowish influence—and this ages almost to white, while retaining yellow-cream tints. Mature, nearly white flowers remind one of L. houdyshelii.

I carefully fertilized flowers on two of the scapes with pollen from L. radiata and L. "sperryi," which happened to be in bloom, but got no ''takes." The third scape developed to its own pollen, apparently, one capsule containing a single large, shiny, black seed, which I planted.

Since these blooms were produced quickly from recently dug bulbs reset in a greenhouse box, measurements given above may not be typical. I suspect that scapes from established bulbs will be taller. In any event, it is a very fine lycoris.

Both of these numbered ''whites'' began pushing up foliage blades in the manner of L. radiata, soon after flowers faded, but blades are broader and longer than in radiata—in fact, quite like L. elsiae foliage. As yet I know nothing of how hardy these bulbs are. They have proved, of course, well adapted to the Gulf Coast country, but I fear that, like L. elsiae, they will exist but not exactly thrive and bloom freely in middle Tennessee.

I hope that Dr. Traub and other botanists can decide whether these variants among the ''white" lycorises should be classed as different species or just varieties of species we have already. Meanwhile, they are interesting and beautiful garden material for whoever can grow them.

Fig. 16. —Delicately colored Lycoris elsiae does well where winters are not too cold. Photo by Sam Caldwell.


We need more observant gardeners to report on the performance of lycorises in different localities. While other factors undoubtedly affect their flowering, it is reasonably certain in the Upper South that the severity of winters has much to do with it. After a particularly bitter winter we have learned not to expect much bloom on L. radiata, which is widely grown here. This seems reasonable, in view of the fact that near-zero temperatures and drying winds damage the persistent foliage.

But several strains of L. radiata are in cultivation, and some of these may tolerate more cold than others. 1960 was not a very good lycoris year in the Nashville area—rather to have been expected, because the 1959-60 winter was long and cold and brought 37 inches of snow. When fall came, bloom on L. radiata was generally sparse. Yet the fertile strain of this species, though blooming toward the end of August which is later than usual, made a grand display—fully up to normal. Also there were isolated clumps of L. radiata imported from Japan in recent years that bloomed very well. And quite late—on October 5—I observed in a local nursery a block of several hundred bulbs of a fine, large form of L. radiata that seemed to be giving nearly 100% bloom. The owner said they were long-established bulbs, secured through regular trade channels—presumably from Japan—some years ago. It is true that they are situated on a south slope in a sandy clay that suits them just right, but I am going to try bulbs of that stock in different situations to see if they are extra reliable in flower production. It takes so many years actually to learn anything definite about matters of this sort that I hope other people are working at them, too.

Reluctantly, I have given up trying to grow L. traubii outdoors here. Bulbs held on for a while outdoors but never bloomed. Then sub-zero weather in the 1957-58 winter killed all of mine outright. I know of one planting in a protected spot in a Memphis, Tennessee garden where they have done very well. But our Nashville winters are colder.

Some of the ''border line'' types, such as delicately colored L. elsiae [Fig. 16], which just barely gets by outside for me, I am trying out now in a permanent ground bed surrounded by a board frame. A sash covered with polyethylene film is put over it in bad weather.


Everyone who gardens has problems. Following are questions about lycorises that I'd like to have answered. Perhaps some reader can help.

1. Is there really such a plant anywhere in cultivation as L. squamigera var. purpurea? The few times I have found bulbs thus listed, they turned out to be something else. ''L. purpurea'' is seen in catalogs and lists from time to time. These, in my experience, invariably prove to be the fine hardy species, L. sprengeri. An interesting angle is that "L. purpurea" bulbs are usually offered at 50c to $2.00 each, while L. sprengeri, when bought under its correct name, costs about $5.00.

2. What is the true identity of the lycoris we can currently buy as L. sanguinea? Certainly it does not produce either the "dull red" or the "blood-red-scarlet" flowers I read of in a couple of supposedly authoritative descriptions of the species. Bulbs I have from several sources all give in July plain little flowers nearest to ''strong reddish orange," Munsell Hue 10R 6/12, which fades badly in sun. Could they be L. sanguinea var. cyrtanthiflora, said to have "flowers apricot-colored, bleaching in the sun to a gray color"?

3. Has anyone ever made a direct comparison of L. argentea and L. haywardii? I think it's possible they may be the same thing.

4. If the yellow lycoris of St. Augustine, Florida is true L. aurea, as most of us assume, how do we reconcile facts with the description (in Amaryllidaceae: Tribe Amarylleae), "leaves produced in May ... flowers in August"? Flowers, as they come in September and October in St. Augustine, are close enough to the description, perhaps, but ''leaves in May'' is completely off, since they actually start in October or possibly late September in Florida.

[EDITORIAL NOTE:—The application of the name Lycoris aurea will be determined by the writer in the not too distant future by an examination of the herbarium specimens in European Botanical Institutions. The true L. aurea apparently is a hardier plant than the St. Augustine plant, and thus most likely has the habit of producing leaves in May in northern locations. Only the examination of the type material can settle this point.—Hamilton P. Traub]