How to Grow and Care For The Surprise Lily 

Producing fragrant lily-like white or rose pink flowers with a hint of lilac the surprise lily is a welcome addition to late summer and fall gardens. Pleasingly easy to care for, these low maintenance plants will reward your efforts with eye-catching, colorful floral displays.

If you want to learn more about the surprise lily, including how to add the plant to your garden, this guide will take you through everything that you need to know.

1 Pink surprise lily flower

This plant is popular for its pretty pink flowers.

What is the Surprise Lily?

A perennial bulb, the surprise lily is not actually a true lily plant. Native to Asia this attractive ornamental plant is a hybrid that belongs to the Amaryllidaceae.

The surprise lily (Lycoris Squamigera) is a cross between Lycoris Straminea and Lycoris Incarnata. These flowering bulbs are also known as:

  • Resurrection lily,
  • Magic lily,
  • Naked lady.

The name surprise lily refers to the plant’s flowering habit. In the fall flowers can suddenly appear, without any prior warning or foliage forming first.

Lycoris Squamigera bulbs send out daffodil-like leaves in the spring, these can reach a height of around 15 to 18 inches. After helping the bulb harvest and store energy the foliage dies away in early summer. The Lycoris bulb is then dormant during the summer months before a flower stalk emerges in the fall.

2 Surprise lily foliage
Daffodil-like leaves emerge in the spring. Surprise Lilies by cariliv / CC 2.0

Capable of reaching a height of 24 inches, the flowering stalk holds groups of 6 to 8 lily-like flowers around 3 inches long. Colorful and fragrant the flowers are a welcome sight in late August or early September, adding color and interest to fading gardens.

Mature naked lady Lycoris plants can spread up to 2 ft wide.

A low maintenance addition to the garden, the unusual growth habit of the Lycoris Squamigera means that these plants thrive in areas that enjoy wet springs and dry summers. The bulbs are also pleasingly disease free while most common pests, including deer and rabbits tend to leave them alone.

With the right care, naked lady Lycoris bulbs can continue to flower for up to 10 years. With regular division they can last even longer.

3 Low maintenance surprise lily

These are attractive, low maintenance flowers.  

Warning, Lycoris bulbs contain a toxic alkaloid which can cause vomiting, diarrhea and convulsions in both humans and animals. Never consume the bulbs and always wash your hands after handling.

Wearing work gloves whilst handling the bulbs offers further protection. If you have pets or small children, plant somewhere out of their reach such as in a raised bed.

Where to Plant Surprise Lily Bulbs

Getting your planting position right is important. In the wrong position, naked lady Lycoris bulbs may struggle to grow and flower. Take the time to work out the best place for your Lycoris Squamigera plants before you begin planting; these plants dislike being dug up and disturbed.

The surprise lily is hardy in USDA planting zones 5 to 9. In colder climates you will need to provide some protection during the winter months.

4 Plant surprise lily

Plant in a favorable position. Surprise lilies by aulusgellius / CC 2.0

The surprise lily does best in a full sun position. In warmer climates the bulbs also tolerate a partial sun position. Here the soil stays damp for longer, protecting the bulbs from drying out. A spot with some afternoon shade helps to protect the foliage from leaf scorch. Be careful not to plant in too shady a position; this can deter flowering.

Hardy plants, the Lycoris Squamigera grows in most temperatures as long as it is not too extreme. Exposure to excessive heat or cold can stunt growth. It also causes flowers to be smaller and fewer in number.

Naked lady Lycoris bulbs are not fussy about soil as long as it is well draining. A loamy or nutrient rich soil is preferred but poorer soils can be amended before planting. To improve your soil, work in a 3 to 4 inch layer of thick compost into the top 12 inches of soil. As well as improving drainage an organic amendment also adds nutrients to the soil.

A neutral to slightly acidic soil is ideal. The bulbs also tolerate alkaline soils as long as it isn’t too extreme.

Choosing Your Bulbs

Lycoris Squamigera bulbs are often sold in garden stores and plant nurseries. When selecting your bulbs, try to pick the plumpest that are available. Smaller bulblets may not be fully mature and can take a few years to start flowering. Your chosen bulbs should feel firm. There should be no visible signs of disease or damage.

How to Plant

One of the most important parts of learning how to grow a surprise lily is planting the bulbs correctly. If you are planting in the ground, begin by identifying a favorable position.

Work in any necessary amendments and weed the soil. A good way to enrich the soil and improve drainage is to work a roughly 3 inch layer of compost into the top 12 inches of soil.

Dig a hole large enough to hold the bulb. When placed in the hole, the top of the bulb should sit  just below soil level. In colder planting zones, plant the bulbs a little deeper to protect them from cold winter temperatures.

When you are happy with the size of the hole, work a dose of Schultz Slow Release Fertilizer into the soil at the bottom of the hole. Position the bulb in the hole and backfill. Be careful not to accidentally sink the bulb down as you backfill the hole; planting too deeply can discourage flowering. Pat down the soil and water well.

After watering the soil around the bulb may sink down, exposing the top of the Lycoris bulb. If this happens, add some compost or potting soil to the planting site, lightly covering the top of the exposed bulb.

Lycoris Squamigera flowers are at their best when planted in clusters, space your bulbs 6 to 12 inches apart for a colorful, flowering display.

Planting Lycoris Bulbs in Pots

While they are a popular addition to mixed flower beds, you can also grow surprise lily flowers in pots.
Your pots should be at least 10 to 12 inches in diameter and fairly deep. This gives the plants lots of room to grow without becoming too crowded. If the pot doesn’t already have some, drill some drainage holes into the bottom before filling with potting soil.

5 Surprise lily in a pot

You can also grow these plants in pots. Tiny-lily by turkeychik / CC 2.0

Fill the pot with a well-draining potting soil. You can mix sand into the potting soil at a ratio of 1:2 to further improve drainage. Finally, mix a slow release fertilizer into your potting soil mix, if it doesn’t already contain one.

Pot your Lycoris Squamigera bulbs as described above; in holes large enough to hold the bulb with its top sitting just below the soil surface and water well.

After a few years of steady growth you will need to repot your surprise lily bulbs. This is also a good time to propagate the plants.

How to Divide and Propagate Lycoris Bulbs

Learning how to propagate naked lady Lycoris plants not only provides you with a free way to get more plants, it also helps to keep the bulbs healthy and productive. Because the surprise lily is a hybrid plant it doesn’t produce any seeds. Dividing and growing from bulbs is the only propagation method open to you.

The right time to divide your bulbs is after a few years of steady growth, when flowering starts to diminish. This is also the best time to harvest bulbs or offsets for propagation.

Divisions are best made in the fall or early spring, when the bulbs are dormant and the soil is workable.

Begin by watering the soil thoroughly. This makes lifting the bulbs easier and helps to prevent accidental damage. Use a shovel or hand trowel to carefully dig around the bulbs. The shovel or a garden fork can then be used to lift the bulbs from the soil. Aim to keep as much soil around the roots as possible.

With your hands, divide the bulbs. Gently twisting the bulbs helps them to separate with minimal damage. Re-plant the larger bulbs in their old position

The smaller, newer bulbs can be planted elsewhere in your garden, in pots or given to friends and family. Plant the bulbs as described above. Small bulbs or bulblets can be planted 5 to 6 inches deep and around 6 inches apart.

Don’t worry if your divisions don’t flower immediately. For the first year or two after planting the bulblets focus on growing and storing energy. Continue to care for the plants as you would their more mature counterparts and, once they are mature enough, the offsets will start to produce flowers.

How to Care for the Surprise Lily

The Lycoris Squamigera is a pleasingly low maintenance plant. If planted in the correct position, caring for the Lycoris bulb requires no special knowledge or skill.

Just a little regular attention is all that is necessary for the plants to produce large, colorful flowers year after year. This makes them a good choice for new gardeners and people who have little time to spend in the garden but still want to enjoy lots of flowers.

6 Easy to care for surprise lily

These are low maintenance flowers. surprise_lilies by TCDavis / CC 2.0

One of the most distinctive aspects of the surprise lily is that its foliage dies back completely before flowering. This can leave bare patches of soil. Planting low growing ground cover around the Lycoris bulb clump can fill unsightly gaps in your flower bed. The surprise lily flower stalks can easily grow through the ground cover.

Planting low growing ground cover is also a good way to suppress weed growth, reducing the amount of garden maintenance and weeding that you need to do.

When to Water

For many people one of the most difficult aspects of learning how to grow and care for any plant is working out how often to water.

The surprise lily requires moderate water when it is actively growing. This means keeping the top layer of soil damp or moist. It shouldn’t be too soggy or allowed to dry out completely.

To work out when to water, stick your finger into the soil; if the soil is dry then it is time to water the plants. If you want a more scientific measure, a Dr Meter Soil Moisture Sensor can be used to monitor soil moisture levels.

In late June when the foliage dies back and during the winter dormant period, reduce the amount of water you give. Periodically watering the bulbs, just enough that the soil doesn’t dry out, is more than enough.

Too much water during this period can rot the bulbs. If you are growing your surprise lily plants outside, rainfall should be enough to keep the bulbs happy.

Finally, remember that plants growing in pots often need watering more regularly than those growing in the ground. Planting in a self-watering pot helps to keep your plants happy and reduce the amount of maintenance your plants need.

When to Fertilize

A regular dose of fertilizer encourages healthy growth and flowering. After planting, allow the bulbs to settle for a month before feeding. This gives the root system time to settle and develop and helps to prevent root burn.

In the fall, apply a high potassium fertilizer to the soil around the bulbs. Organic products that are rich in potassium such as Nature Grow Kelp Meal can also be used. This can be followed in the spring with a dose of nitrogen rich fertilizer to encourage growth. Miracle-Gro Tomato Plant Food, which is rich in nitrogen, can also be used.

Check the information on the fertilizer packet for dosage amounts before applying to your plants. Too much fertilizer can cause more damage than under-feeding.

If planted in a good soil this is all the fertilizing that your surprise lily bulbs need. In poorer soils, you may need to apply another dose of nitrogen fertilizer later in the spring. Alternatively, improve and enrich the soil around your bulbs by working in some compost.

7 Fertilize your surprise lily
Regular fertilizer encourages flowers to form. Surprise Lilies [4] by JeromeG111 / CC 2.0

Do I Need to Prune?

One of the main attractions of learning how to grow and care for the surprise lily, apart from its eye-catching appearance, is that these are pleasingly low maintenance plants. No heavy pruning is required. As a rule, if you leave the plants alone, in the right position, they thrive.

Dead foliage and stems can be cut from the plant to improve the visual appeal of your garden. This also helps to keep the plants healthy. When pruning, always use sharp garden scissors. This helps you to make precise, smooth cuts. Remember to clean your tools before and after use to prevent the accidental spread of disease around your garden.

How to Overwinter

Hardy in USDA Zones 5 to 9, growers in colder areas, where winter temperatures fall below 28 ℉, must protect their surprise lily bulbs.

Plants growing in pots can be moved inside for the winter and returned to their usual position in spring.

Placing the pots on a Gartol Metal Plant Caddy makes moving them into and out of your home a lot easier.

Remember to occasionally water the pots to prevent them from completely drying out.

Surprise lily bulbs growing in the ground can be protected by placing a 2 to 3 inch thick layer of mulch onto your garden beds. This insulates the soil and the bulbs, protecting them from exposure to cold temperatures and harmful freeze-and-thaw cycles. In the spring, once all danger of frost has passed and air temperatures have started to warm up, pull back the remaining mulch to help new growth emerge.

8 Surprise lily mulch

Remove the protective mulch in the spring to allow fresh foliage to emerge. First signs of spring by Khadija Dawn Carryl / CC 2.0

Common Lycoris Pests and Diseases

For many growers one of the most attractive elements of the surprise lily, apart from its gorgeous flowers, is that it rarely succumbs to any significant diseases.

9 Healthy surprise lily

These plants rarely succumb to disease.  

A hardy plant, one of the few problems that may develop is bulb rot. This is usually caused by overwatering. Early signs of bulb rot include yellowing foliage and stunted growth. If you suspect that bulb rot is developing, dig up the bulb clump and separate the bulbs, discarding any that are soft, damaged or diseased.

Replant the healthy, firm bulbs in well draining soil. From now on, water only when the soil starts to dry out. A soil moisture sensor provides a reliable way of monitoring moisture levels if you struggle to work out when to water your plants.

While the surprise lily is largely pest resistant, sometimes infestations of aphids or lily leaf beetles can develop. Regularly inspect the foliage of your plants for signs of infestation.

Small infestations can be washed away with a blast from a garden hose. Larger infestations may require treatment with an insecticidal soap or spray. Neem oil can also be wiped onto affected leaves to treat an infestation.

Many animals such as deer avoid the foliage and flowers of the surprise lily because of the toxicity of the plant.

How to Encourage Flowering

Flowers are unlikely to develop in the first year after planting. During this period your surprise lily bulbs are focusing their energy on developing a healthy and extensive root system. As long as the plants are in well draining soil and full sun, flowers should develop from the second year onwards.

Getting surprise lily plants that are growing indoors to flower can be tricky. Here the lack of light is often an issue. Grow lights can be used to supplement natural light exposure and encourage blooms.

10 Surprise lily flowers
The flowers are the main attraction of the plant. Source: Surprise-Lilies by Joana Roja / CC 2.0

Pleasingly easy to care for the lily-like fragrant flowers of the surprise lily are a welcome addition to late season gardens. Popular with pollinators, these low maintenance flowers work in a range of planting schemes and also happily grow in pots around the patio.

If you are looking for an easy to care for plant that will add late season interest to your garden, why not try the surprise lily?

Surprise Lily 1 Surprise Lily 2