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Garden Talk

surprise lily

Horticultural Highlight: Surprise Lily

Tess Anderson

In this series, the staff of Duke Gardens highlights plants you’ll find within our 55-acre living collection. This week, assistant horticulturist Tess Anderson features surprise lilies that you might see popping up this time of year.

Botanical name: Lycoris  
Common name: Surprise lily
Family name: Amaryllidaceae (Amaryllis Family)
Plant type: Bulb
Native range: Japan and China
Location in Duke Gardens: Culberson Asiatic Arboretum (at the Moss Garden and the Peony Collection)
Site requirements: Full sun to part shade
USDA Hardiness Zones: Depending on species, 5-10

surprise lilies

Lycoris, also known as surprise lily or resurrection lily, is one of my favorite flowers in the arboretum. There are 20 species of surprise lilies (and many cultivars), with differences in color of the flower as well as their shape and size. 

Lycoris blooms in late summer to early fall (at Duke Gardens, late August to early September) and are characterized by tall naked stalks with the flowers at the top. The individual flowers form in a circle around the stalk, giving the plant a spherical top and a bold look.

Lycoris is unique because unlike other bulbs, its foliage does not emerge until after it has flowered. The foliage is strap-like, and for some species it remains evergreen throughout the winter and into early spring. It then goes dormant, not showing its leaves during the summer—that’s how it earned the names surprise lily or resurrection lily, from the way that the flowers appear unexpectedly when there is no evidence of foliage.

These flowers are great for use in borders and create a stunning pop of color when planted in masses. They can also be used in large containers and are beloved by butterflies. 

More Garden Talk highlights

Lycorias radiata (top); Lycoris shaanxiensis (middle); Lycoris aurea (below). Photos by Tess Anderson (lilies) and Clarence Burke (portrait).

surprise lily foliage and in bloom