Surprise, or magic lilies (Lycoris squamigera) aren't actually lilies at all. They are a cold-hardy member of the amaryllis family. These summer-blooming bulbs grow well in USDA zones 5 through 9, although colder climate gardeners have reported success if planted in a sheltered location and mulched heavily each fall. Some Canadian gardeners even report long-lived colonies when planted near southern walls, so don't be afraid to experiment. Actually, northern gardeners tend to have better success than southern gardeners out of the growing zone because these bulbs need some chill hours below 32 degrees to properly set blooms.
Native to Japan and China, but naturalized all over Asia, these beautiful pink or white blooms sit atop 1 to 2 foot stalks that sprout after the foliage dies back. The strap-like foliage appears in early spring about the time daffodils emerge. The foliage hangs around without producing blooms for several months and inexperienced gardeners grieve over the lack of flowers. The leaves eventually die back as summer heats up and the nitrogen they stored feeds the bulbs that sit beneath the soil. Just when the gardener forgets about the flowerless leaves that proved such a disappointment, in late July or early August, naked flower scapes appear seemingly overnight and burst forth with frothy, frilly, fragrant blooms. This pleasant surprise has contributed to several descriptive common names. Surprise lily, resurrection lily, magic lily all refer to the fact that they shoot up almost out of nowhere. Naked ladies refer to the characteristic that the flower stalks are bare of any leaves or foliage. The lack of foliage is an excellent way of determining whether you are growing Lycoris squamigera or it's close cousin, Amaryllis belladona. The A.belladonna's foliage emerges after the bulbs flower as opposed to before. Also, the A. belladonna is much more susceptible to cold weather, so is mainly grown in the southern climates. Both look similar and use the same common names, so this is a good reason to learn your Latin names.
Plant your surprise lilies in well-drained, good soil, although they tolerate clay and sand quite well, for the best show, make sure there is ample organic matter mixed in. They do well planted a couple of inches below the soil line although colder climates benefit from setting the bulbs a bit deeper. They like full sun, but also bloom in partially shaded areas and look stunning along wooded areas mixed with ferns and hostas. Plant with mounding sun-loving plants like petunias or ornamental sweet potatoes and I've even had a lovely display using purple Tradescantia pallida ('Purple Heart'). These bulbs are actually low-maintenance and seldom need additional water after the foliage dies back. They tolerate container life well, are deer resistant and insects tend to avoid them too. They reproduce with offsets and naturalize well. Divide the bulbs every 3 to 5 years for the best show.
Asian folk medicine used this plant for its sedative properties, but since the compound galanthamine is a toxic substance, few use it anymore. The bulbs were also a starchy food source, however they had to be leached through several changes of water to remove the toxicity.
The fragrant flowers are showy and are attractive to hummingbirds, bees and butterflies, so they would make a great addition to a wildlife garden. Chances are, a friend or neighbor has some extras, as they are nice pass-along plants. However, a number of commercial sources offer them and it isn't too late to plant some for blooms this summer. The bulbs can be planted in early spring as soon as the ground is workable, or in the fall when you are planting other bulbs. These are easy-care bulbs that give a huge bang for the buck, so add a few to your garden and enjoy the late summer surprise.