Storm lilies, autumn crocus or rain lilies are small bulbs in the genus Zephyranthes. These under rated plants deserve to be more widely grown in subtropical and tropical gardens. They are tough and undemanding, and soon form large clumps that flower readily over summer in response to warm and moist conditions.
Flowering is synchronised – that is, plants will flower simultaneously together over a wide region. The flowering seems to be stimulated by storm events, possibly triggered by changes in pressure. Flowering is often said to predict forthcoming rain events. Seed pods are produced immediately following flowering and seeds fall while the ground is still moist.
The name Zephyranthes means ‘flower of the west wind’. The flowers are symmetrical and point straight up. The related Habranthus genus , also widely grown, have similar flowers which hang to one side. Each flower generally lasts for one to two days.
These bulbous plants are native to the southern USA, down through Mexico and Central America to the south of the South American continent. They also grow in the islands of the Caribbean. Typically they are found growing in meadows and pastures among grasses. These plants grow in regions subject to seasonal rainfall and can tolerate both wet and dry periods.
Over the Xmas and New Year period I had a chance to visit some nurseries and gardens. At Big Leaf Nursery at Eumundi, I saw the yellow storm lily (Zephyranthes flavissimus), being grown in large quantities. From southern Brazil and northern Argentina, this plant has stunning shiny deep green leaves and starry butter yellow flowers. In the nursery beds plants resembled a lush turf covered in flowers. I was told they look like this every day of the year. Mine at home are more seasonal, but I suspect they are responding to water availability. I find this plant to be less vigorous than many other popular species, but it is still one of my favourites. A new year’s resolution is to plant more of this bulb to make some flowering ’lawns‘ in my own garden.
Many other species of Zephyranthes are grown in Australia. The rose pink storm lily (Zephyranthes carinata, prev. Zephyranthes grandiflora) is probably the showiest of the species with its large (to 10cm or 3 inches) deep pink flowers. This plant is native to Mexico, Central America and Colombia. I saw it in full flower in many gardens recently and it really made a show. The secret, as with so many garden plants, is to grow it en masse. Instead of dividing it and dotting it through the garden, divide it and plant up some broad ribbons or blocks that really make an impact. This plant also looks great in large shallow saucer-shaped pots. This is a great way to grow it in cooler climes where the pot can be whisked under cover during the brutal winter months.
The white storm lily (Zephyranthes candida) is probably the most well-known member of this genus in Australia. It originates from the Rio de la Plata region of southern Argentina, southern Paraguay and Uruguay, and being the most cold-hardy plant in the genus, it is grown in the southern areas of the country and is widely promoted by the gardening media in these areas. It also does well in the subtropics, however it is not so commonly grown in the tropics as many other species. While not as showy as its colourful relations, it has a cool elegance about it, particularly when combined with muted plantings. A number of different cultivars of this species are grown locally. I’m sure many more are grown elsewhere. These include a pure white flowered cultivar; one with flowers that don’t open fully; and ‘The Pearl ‘ which has large pink-flushed flowers. Plants grow vigorously and soon form dense clumps which can be lifted and spread every second or third year.
The primrose storm lily (Zephyranthes primulinum) is another popular species. It has pale yellow, cupped flowers, with sepals flushed with pink on their undersides. It is seldom seen in garden centres or nurseries but is frequently found in the gardens of keen gardeners. Plants don’t clump up quickly, but they produce lots of seed which results in plants being patchily dispersed over a broad area. My good friend Cheryl Boyd at Stringybark Cottage (opening with Open Gardens Australia), has planted it among star jasmine (Trachelospemum asiaticum), mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) and other low groundcovers , where it looks superb.
And last but not least (in this blog that is), we have the pink or Cuban storm lily (Zephyranthes roseus). This native of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guadeloupe and Martinique is probably the hardiest and most vigorous species in the subtropics. Plants soon form large drifts and can also be readily grown from seed. The pink flowers with green centres are produced profusely over the summer and autumn months and put on quite a show. I’m surprised it isn’t more widely grown. This is one species that can be naturalised in lawns (as are Narcissus or daffodils in cooler climates) to produce drifts of spectacular colour. Two provisos – don’t feed the lawn in this area and set the lawnmower at its highest level.
A few hybrid storm lilies are also grown in Australia. ‘Ajax’ (Zephyranthes candida x citrina) with pale yellow flowers and ‘Grandjax’ (Zephyranthes carinata x ‘Ajax’) with peach coloured flowers are quite popular. However in Asia, some breathtaking hybrid storm lilies can be seen in gardens. This is largely due to the work of hybridist Fadjar Marta from Indonesia. Deep red, rich orange, double and semi-double flowers have been produced by this talented man. Maybe one day we will see them in our own gardens. In the mean time, head over to Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, where they have amassed a collection of his plants for display in these incredible gardens. Look out for Zephyranthes ‘Singapore Pride’ with its rich red flowers.
Storm lilies generally look good throughout the year, forming a lush grassy groundcover. While flowering profusely in response to rain and storms, odd flowers are produced year-round once plants are established. Keep them well watered and they remain green and lush. Let them dry out and they will die down to the bulb – but reappear instantly once rain arrives again. The perfect plant for the lazy gardener.
Plants are readily divided – simply lift a clump and they fall apart into many tiny bulbs ready for replanting. Plants also produce a lot of seed which germinates readily. Many gardeners simply sow in situ and have great success with this method.
Plants are generally completely pest or disease free. However if their nutritional needs are not met; they are planted in too deep a shade; they are kept too dry; or the ground is not free draining, they may be subject to Narcissus bulb fly (grubs which eat foliage and bulbs) or mealy bug.
Add these plants to your 2013 shopping list. Start planning how you might use them to enhance the summer and autumn garden – be it in pots, perennial borders, or perhaps a drift through the lawn. Plants are available at most nurseries, online or from keen gardening friends.
I better get planting myself, as Cheryl has given me a few more plants for my garden…….