Nature talk: Rain lilies

October 25, 2009


A number of readers have requested information about the cultivation of imported crocus bulbs and, whilst being a staunch fan of these pretty spring flowers, I still feel the need to suggest that, unless you live in the hills, you opt for 'Zephyranthes' instead.

The reason is quite simple Crocus admittedly give a wonderful, if short lived, display of attractive blooms in purples, white, yellows and bi-colours but the expensive bulbs rarely survive to a second season as they are not climatically compatible to the plains of Pakistan but Zephyranthes will continue to delight year after year and will, if happy, also multiply quite fast.

Sometimes known as 'Rain lilies', 'Fairy lilies', 'Flowers of the west wind' or 'Zephyr lilies', these members of the 'Amaryllidaceae' family of bulbous plants actually resemble crocus but are usually somewhat taller in habit and flower at odd times from the end of April or beginning of May through to late September or October. Although my own 'Zephyranthes rosea' surprised me by putting on a stunning pink show in the last week of December last year, yet the white flowered 'Zephyranthes candida' stuck its autumn schedule with a yellow variety flowering all summer long.

Having their origins in North and South America, Zephyranthes' have been grown in this part of the world for so long that some people, including myself, tend to think of them as being indigenous. The situation is compounded by a beautiful description of them growing wild in the Himalayas in Anita Desai's book 'Fire on the Mountain' in which, true to the 'Rain lily' name, they suddenly burst into flower overnight during the summer monsoons.

Requiring periods of drought, followed by high humidity Zephyranthes do indeed flower in endless profusion during rainy periods yet they are not averse to popping up, literally overnight at other times too. Sometimes planted in rockeries or as border edgings, these fragile looking flowers are really as tough as nails as long as you leave them undisturbed to get on with the task of multiplying at a ferocious rate. In my opinion, they are at their natural best when planted amongst grass beneath trees and shrubs.

Preferring sandy, well drained soil, they are equally at home in sun or partial shade and some of them have the added bonus of being pleasantly, if slightly, perfumed. Quite content in locations as diverse as Karachi, Quetta, Lahore, Multan, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and the hills, Zephyranthes were once quite well known but, for reasons unknown, other than that they might have committed the sin of being classed as 'common', have been sadly neglected by the latest crop of gardeners in the country. They prefer to bemoan the extortionate cost and short lives of Dutch crocus bulbs when they could have massed displays of Zephyranthes instead.

In the hope of enticing more people to plant these adaptable bulbs, which are far easier to grow than other tricky, more recently imported varieties, let me give you an up-date on the currently available colour range.

Firstly, there are the established white, pink and sunshine yellow ones and then, to grab your attention and thanks to the complicated processes of breeding and hybridisation, there are now red ones, purple ones, orange, lemon, cream, sulphur yellow, magenta and mauve ones plus some displaying bi-coloured and even frilly blooms. The original, non-hybrid species can be had in flower in as little as seven to eight months from seed which you can harvest from existing plants. They also multiply themselves by putting out dozens of off-sets from the main bulbs but, if you purchase highly bred, hybrid bulbs then the seeds collected from these are most unlikely to come true to the parent plant and, unfortunately, tend to be recessive although the off-sets will be fine.

Zephyranthes flowers, only one per stem, last from 24 - 48 hours as a general rule but as established bulbs put up lots and lots of stems over a long period of time, the overall effect is massed blooms for weeks, sometimes months, on end. The leaves, rather like elongated crocus leaves, may or may not be evergreen as this depends on growing conditions but be assured that, long after you have forgotten exactly where you planted them, the flowers will suddenly pop up to remind you that they are there. So readers, forget the temperamental crocus and plant Zephyranthes instead!

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1 .They only last a couple of days.
2. Zephyranthes rosea.
3. Zephyranthes candida.