Lilies have been among the most popular flower since antiquity - first as symbols of the pagan mother goddess, then as the floral emblem for the Virgin Mary. No matter what the culture, lilies and other lily lookalikes found their way into gardens. True lilies are in the genus Lilium and members of the lily (Liliaceae) family. Most of the lilies in the world don’t do well in Texas, however.
Many of the plants we grow here and call lilies aren’t actually lilies. These include the daylily, ginger lily, canna lily, lent lily, St. Joseph’s lily, crinum lily, rain lily, spider lily and one of my all-time favorites, the oxblood lily.
I’ll never forget the first oxblood lilies I ever saw. I was a freshman at Texas A&M. 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 oak trees were hundreds, if not thousands, of small red amaryllis-looking flowers, springing forth right from the lawn.
Like most passionate gardeners, 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 appeared magically on naked stems as well. I was allowed to come back and dig a few 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 a summer dormancy. Oxblood lilies bloom earlier, around the start of school, hence their other common name, the “schoolhouse lily.”
Both are in the amaryllis (Amaryllidaceae) family like many other lily substitutes in the South. But instead of being from Asia like Lycoris, Rodophiala is from South America.
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 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. In “Garden Bulbs for the South,” Scott Odgen says, “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.
The Smith County Master Gardeners will have both oxblood lilies (including some rare pink ones) and red spider lilies in this Saturday’s “From Bulbs to Blooms” conference and sale at Harvey Convention Center. I’ll be speaking on “Year-round Bulbs” starting at 9 a.m., with the sale starting at 11:30 a.m. For more information and a list of available bulbs, see the Smith County Master Gardener events page at https://txmg.org/smith/coming-events.
Greg Grant is the Smith County horticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. You can follow him on Facebook at “Greg Grant Gardens,” 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). For more information on local educational programming, go to smith.agrilife.org.