School has started, which means it’s time for the schoolhouse lilies to bloom. Also known as oxblood lilies, these miniature, blood-red amaryllis relatives bloom like magic around the start of school each year, depending on the first soaking rain.
I’ll never forget the first oxblood lilies I ever saw. I was a freshman at Texas A&M University. It had just rained days before. Suddenly, a scene appeared before me that burned an image in my mind forever. Surrounding a modest house dotted with live oak trees were hundreds, if not thousands, of small red amaryllis-looking flowers springing forth right from the lawn.
As a typical naïve horticulture major, I begged for a start. I was already a huge amaryllis fan, having purchased a greenhouse in ninth grade to house my collection. I was also a fan of red spider lilies (Lycoris radiata), which appear suddenly on naked stems a bit later as well. I was allowed to come back and dig a few round black oxblood lily bulbs after they finished blooming.
It turned out that the oxblood lily (Rhodophiala bifida) had the same growth cycle as my beloved red spider lilies — flowers in the late summer or early fall, followed by winter foliage and summer dormancy.
One of our early German-Texan plantsmen, Peter Heinrich Oberwetter, of Comfort and later Austin, apparently introduced oxblood lilies from Argentina and began to propagate and distribute them around the heart of Texas. To this day, you’ll find more oxblood lilies in the German heritage areas of Central Texas than any other part of the state.
They need winter sunshine, an extended dry period during the summer and a good rain in August or September. They will grow in a flower bed, in ground cover, in the lawn or in a pasture. In "Garden Bulbs for the South," Scott Odgen writes, “No other Southern bulb can match the fierce vigor, tenacity, and adaptability of the oxblood lily.” And though the striking blooms only last a week or two, the bulbs will outlive you, producing more and more blooms each year without ever needing to be divided.
If you don’t have a friend who will share, the Smith County Master Gardeners will have oxblood lilies (including rare pink ones) at their annual From Bulbs to Blooms Conference and Sale Oct. 13 at Harvey Convention Center. Put it on your calendar, as bulb farmer, naturalist and bluebird expert Keith Kridler will be speaking, along with yours truly, on a multitude of Earth-Kind bulbs for Texas.
Greg Grant is the Smith County horticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. He is co-author of "Heirloom Gardening in the South." You can read his “Greg’s Ramblings” blog at arborgate.com or read his “In Greg’s Garden” in each issue of Texas Gardener magazine (texasgardener.com). More science-based gardening information from the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service can be found at aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu.