Oxblood lilies mark back-to-school time and hurricane season

Published on Wednesday, 28 August 2013 22:14 - Written by By Keith Hansen Keeping It Green

They are a flowering bulb with several names, including hurricane lily and schoolhouse lily. They are most commonly known as oxblood lilies, but the timing of their bloom season also coincides with the onset of hurricane season and back-to-school days.

Schools in Tyler started Monday, and right on cue, there was a group blooming in the IDEA Garden in the Tyler Rose Garden the next day. Fortunately, there are no hurricanes in the Gulf threatening us. Note that hurricane lilies are also a name given to another flowering bulb, red spider lilies (Lycoris).

Oxblood lilies are botanically known as Rhodophiala bifida. They are in the amaryllis family, and the flowers resemble mini amaryllis that don’t quite open up flat. The name oxblood comes from their small but brightly colored blood-red blooms, which are very striking when a mass planting of them are in full bloom.

My most memorable sighting of these was several years ago while passing through La Grange. Brakes were quickly applied as I passed by a very large patch of blood-red blooms under two rows of large crape myrtles. It is quite possible those may have been among some of the early plantings when these tough bulbs were brought to Texas from Argentina. According to Greg Grant in “Heirloom Gardening in the South,” which he co-authored with William Welch, German plantsman Peter Oberwetter is credited with introducing them to Texans in the late 1880s or around 1900.

Interestingly, according to Southern bulb expert Scott Ogden, the oxblood lilies we grow in the South are “unknown to gardeners in Argentina,” making the strain so common in the South a true Southern bulb. It is so hardy that it frequently marks locations of where old farmhouses once stood, their walkways and even circular plantings around trees long gone. It is a remarkable bulb truly adapted to the South!

Sitting on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 77, taking pictures of this breathtaking scene of a solid red carpet, I spotted what turned out to be the owner of the home near the front door. I felt I needed to at least explain my actions. As I approached, I noticed this very elderly woman was sweeping her immaculate dirt yard (a typical German practice). Turns out she was indeed of German descent, and the planting of these bulbs was no doubt quite old.

Oxbloods have a relatively short bloom period, but the blooms are followed by attractive foliage that grows in the fall through spring season. They easily adapt to planting in partially shaded locations where sunlight is plentiful during the dormant season. The black bulbs multiply rapidly, and they pull themselves deeper in the soil by means of their contractile roots, helping them endure prolonged drought and heat. As a matter of fact, they thrive and benefit from a dry summer and no irrigation as this encourages better blooming triggered by fall rains. They are adapted to both sandy and clay soils, acid or alkaline — no problem.

Oxbloods have been passed along from gardener to gardener for generations, yet are not very common in the nursery trade. Each fall, Smith County Master Gardeners and the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service have a conference and plant sale in Tyler where limited quantities of oxbloods are available. They are usually the first ones snatched up. This year’s sale is Oct. 12, so mark your calendars now!

Oxblood lilies are true survivors, hardy to the core, sleeping all summer to spring to life after a late summer rain. Though the blooms do not last very long, their attractive foliage follows the bloom and remains until late springtime when they disappear, going dormant, waiting for school to begin once again.

Keith Hansen is Smith County Horticulturist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. His web page is http://EastTexasGardening.tamu.edu. His blog is http://agrilife.org/etg.