The genus Lycoris in the Amaryllis Family (Amaryllidaceae) is native to Asia, and principally to China and Japan. They belong to the Eurasian clade of the family and are most closely related to the genus Ungernia. They are herbaceous perennial bulbs. Some of the species produce their foliage in autumn and carry it though the winter. Others, the hardier ones in cold climates, leaf out later, in early spring. The flowers are borne in an umbel, a cluster at the top of the peduncle or stalk.
In cold climates, the familiar Surprise Lily, Naked Lady, or Magic Lily is Lycoris squamigera. The foliage, looking like oversized daffodil leaves, appears in spring and then vanishes when the real daffodil foliage disappears. In late summer, usually about the end of July in Indiana, the bare flower stalks ("scapes") appear with their cluster of buds on top.
L. squamigera is a sterile triploid of uncertain origins. It is also the hardiest member of the genus, growing in parts of USDA zone 4 with careful situating and protection. The finest stands of squamigera are to be found around old houses, where they grow under big, old shade trees and bloom with abandon. This is probably not an accident. The wild species are found in China growing in woodlands, in the shade of trees.
The Lycrois found in the South (southeastern states of the United States) is usually L. radiata radiata, another sterile triploid species. L. radiata produces its foliage in autumn, and grows all through the winter. This works well in areas with mild winters, but is also the reason it does not do well in colder climates. In fact, most of the fall-foliage species of Lycoris do poorly in climates with cold winters. The foliage is killed by the harsh cold and the bulb is weakened. They stop blooming and eventually die.
These two, radiata and squamigera, are the only Lycoris commonly found in cultivation in North America. There are however many other species and hybrids known. They can be very difficult to obtain; but watch carefully in the bulb catalogs of specialty bulb dealers, because they occasionaly show up.
Lycoris sprengeri is a smaller flower than the others described here, but more than compensates by its vivid color scheme of pink ground color with an electric blue highlight on the petals. Its foliage appears in spring, and it is quite hardy in USDA zone 5.
Lycoris chinensis is a rich buttery yellow flower in the spider-form similar to L. radiata. It blooms at mid-season, between squamigera and caldwellii. It produces its foliage in the spring, and it is quite hardy in cold climates up to at least USDA zone 5.
Lycoris longitube is a nearly white trumpet-form that appears to be quite hardy. It also blooms early, about when L. squamigera blooms in Indiana. The wide, strap-like foliage appears in spring. There are light pink forms and pale yellow forms, possibly due to past hybridization with sprengeri or chinensis.
A lovely pale yellow lycoris is L. caldwellii, another triploid. It produces its foliage in spring, like squamigera, and seems to be quite hardy in USDA zone 5. It appears later than the others, blooming around the first of September in Indiana.
Lycoris aurea is the yellow species usually offered in commerce. According to Dr. James Waddick, who is quite an expert on this genus, L. aurea is the largest species of Lycoris. The leaves are an inch wide and up to three feet long. It is fall- and winter-growing, and the foliage is very sensitive to frost, so it is extremely tender.
Lycoris do not like to be disturbed. When you receive new bulbs or dig and divide old plantings, the bulbs should be replanted at once. Try to keep the roots intact, moist and healthy. After planting, expect most new bulbs to sulk for a season or even two. You may not see any foliage or flowers the following season, but they should eventually send up foliage and thereafter bloom in season.
Lycoris come from climates with year-round moisture, and they resent a prolonged dry period. In droughts and in seasonally dry climates, they need watereing at regular intervals.
In cold climates, only the varieties and species which produce their foliage in spring and early summer can be expected to do well. Plant the bulbs with the neck just below the ground surface in a semi-shaded area. They should do very well in a natural setting in open woodlands.
Feed established plantings in late autumn with a high potassium fertilizer such as 16-4-20 and again in very early spring with a high nitrogen fertilizer such as 20-5-10. Do not fertilize newly disturbed bulbs. Wait until they have produced some foliage in season before starting the feeding routine.
Bulbs for Warm Climates, by Thad M. Howard, University of Texas Press, Austin (2001).
Bulbs, Revised Edition, by John E. Bryan, Timber Press, Portland (2002).
RHS Manual of Bulbs, John Bryan and Mark Griffiths, Eds., Timber Press (1995).
"Cytological Patterns in the Sino-Japanese Flora Hybrid Complexes in Lycoris, Amaryllidaceae" by Shiro Kurita1 and Ping Sheng Hsu.
An excellent site for additional information on the genus Lycoris is run by D. A. Cooke in Australia.