Friday, October 05, 2007

All You Ever Wanted to Know about Naked Ladies

“In the South, fall comes like a second spring, but with decidedly tropical overtones…It’s as if a gentle breeze from Africa had blown into the garden to awaken the inhabitants. This rich and rewarding season includes a surprising number of bulbs,” says Scott Ogden in his book “Garden Bulbs for the South”, published in 1994, with a second edition in February, 2007.

Take a ride around town or into the countryside and you might spot a row or a patch of one of the bulbs Ogden tells us about. Lycoris radiata is the botanical name of this handsome red flowering, fall blooming bulb that reminds us of the native azalea, with its long, feathery stamens. The stems are graceful and slender.

In his book, Ogden goes into great detail to explain to us the origin of this handsome flower. In the South, he says, they were long referred to as Guernsey lilies because of the similarity to another lily, Nerine sarniensis, that is said to have washed up after a shipwreck onto the island of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands between England and France, where it thrived.

Our Lycoris radiata is quite a different genus altogether. Nerine lilies are better as cut flowers, but don’t grow well in America. Lycoris, on the other hand, is quite comfortable in our hot, southern climate.

“Lycoris,” by the way, he says is correctly pronounced LYcoris, if we are alone or among botanists, but that we would probably say liCORis if we want to be understood around other gardeners.

As for the preponderance of names for this handsome flower, we shouldn’t call it “spider lily” lest it be confused with Hymenocallis or Crinum, so we must call it “Fall Spider Lily.” It may be called “Hurricane Lily” since it often comes into bloom during hurricane season, or, since the Lycoris come into bloom without accompanying foliage, it is fancifully and properly, and, I suppose, uniquely called “Naked Lady.”

Studies performed by geneticists found that the old Southern Lycoris, probably itself an import, is a triploid, meaning it has an extra dose of chromosomes. This gives it tremendous vigor and hardiness, but also makes it sterile. After World War II, commercial growers in Japan began supplying American dealers with Lycoris at inexpensive prices. They are fine bulbs, says Ogden, and the flowers of the diploid types come into bloom a few weeks earlier than the triploid. If you’re lucky enough to have both types, you may have Naked ladies around your garden for a month.

We can plant Lycoris radiata in well drained slightly acidic soils (perfect for Aiken), in a woodland garden among trees or in borders of shrubs or in full sun, though full sun can cause premature withering of the delicate flowers. All Lycoris like soils enriched with leaf litter and humus. If you are fortunate to have some of the old garden varieties passed along to you, you may plant them in soil with more clay. Five to seven flowers appear on each stem, and after the flowers have withered basal leaves appear and deteriorate by the following summer.

Divide Lycoris in spring and don’t be surprised if they take a year off before blooming again. Naked ladies can be persnickety.

There are several similar species of Lycoris: golden spider lily (L. aurea), white (L. albiflora), salmon/orange (L. sanguinea). Another close relative, (L. squamigera) has more typical lily-like flowers that are light pink.

You can get Lycoris radiata bulbs now at Cold Creek Nursery here in Aiken. Plant them now and you should have flowers next year, but remember to mark them. The strap like foliage that comes up unattached to any flower might fool your highly efficient yard man into thinking it’s a weed. He’ll whack it, and you know the rest - no leaf, no photosynthesis. No photosynthesis, no flower. It, I am sad to say, has happened to me.