Arno KingStorm lilies

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. 

Zephyranthes flavissimus has butter yellow flowers

Zephyranthes flavissimus has butter yellow flowers

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.

A 'lawn' of Zephyranthes flavissimus at a nursery

A ‘lawn’ of Zephyranthes flavissimus at a nursery

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.

Zephyranthes carinata planted along a street

Zephyranthes carinata planted along a street

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.

Zephyranthes candida is popular in southern Australia

Zephyranthes candida is popular in southern Australia

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.

Zephyranthes primulinum with seedlings around it

Zephyranthes primulinum with seedlings around it

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.

An orange hybrid Zephyranthes at Gardens by the Bay

An orange hybrid Zephyranthes at Gardens by the Bay

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.

Reddish Zephyranthes at Gardens by the Bay

Reddish Zephyranthes at Gardens by the Bay

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.

Reddish Zephyranthes at Gardens by the Bay

Reddish Zephyranthes at Gardens by the Bay

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.

A double pink Zephyranthes at Gardens by the Bay

A double pink Zephyranthes at Gardens by the Bay

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…….

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Arno King

About Arno King

Landscape architect, horticulturist, journalist and keen gardener, Arno is a regular contributor to Subtropical Gardening Magazine. Based in Brisbane, Arno grows a wide diversity of unusual plant species and has particular interests in growing edible plants in creative settings and biological and organic gardening. Brisbane, Queensland

22 thoughts on “Storm lilies

  1. narf7 on said:

    We grow the purple flowered variety down here in Tasmania so I guess they are pretty hardy. We don’t get frost on our property though so I guess that might have something to do with it 🙂

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello narf7

      being in Tasmania and having purple flowers, it sounds to me like you are growing the true crocus (Crocus sp) which do well in a cooler climate with winter dominant rainfall. I love visiting southern Australia when the crocus are in flower.

      Arno

  2. I’ve only grown the while species form I call autumn crocus but have found it to be tough as old boots and easily propagated by division. I love they way they respond to the late-summer rains here in Sydney with that first flush of white flowers a few weeks later.

  3. Thanks Arno – I had no idea there are so many varieties available!
    I like their seasonality – how they seem to celebrate in unison after rain.

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Kim

      there are over 70 species in the genus, many different cultivars and now many exceptional hybrids – plenty to choose from. The trouble is tracking them down in Australia!

      I also like the seasonal flush of flowers. When they do flower, they are covered in flowers and they seem to be flowering everywhere at once.

      There’s not to much flowering happening now. Its a little too dry.

      • Arno King on said:

        What a difference a couple of weeks can make!

        After the soaking we received from ex-cyclone Oswald, the Zephyranthes have been flowering profusely everywhere. They seem to be making up for lost time as I can’t remember seeing such continuous and volumous flowering.

  4. I love these little crocus and always find it fun to see where they will sprout in my lawn each spring …often in the most unlikely places…. the seeds obviously spray and are blown “hither thither and yon” ( have been dying to use that olde worlde expression) .

    Love that footpath planting. I wd also love to have a mass planting of the candida but think our Queensland conditions too harsh? What say Arno?
    I would like to plant it around some upright stalks of variegated mother-in-law tongue in a giant ( ie about 1.5m diameter) shallow, saucer-shaped pot I have. Can imagine this pretty clump spilling over the pot’s edge while the vertical pointed tongues hold fort in the centre.
    Thanks for the post.
    Julie

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Julie

      Zephyranthes candida does exceptionally well in South East Queensland. You will see it in a few streetscape plantings around the traps as it is probably one of the hardiest plants around. It forms large clumps in no time. It simply dies down when it gets too dry. Unreliable rainfall seems to be our biggest gardening hurdle in South East Queensland – there are good years, and not so good years, like this one.

      Footpath planting is definately worth pursuing. I know of 2 footpath plantings in Brisbane, one at Kangaroo Point and one at Salisbury – no grass, no maintenance, just Zephyranthes. Spectacular when in bloom – I just never seem to have the camera with me!

  5. Rose Thodey on said:

    A fascinating overview Arno – I never knew there were so many varieties. Here in Auckland we grow the white one mainly and it is exceptionally useful as a landscape plant. I know of one garden owner who cuts it back – quite hard – 8 weeks before weddings at her property and then feeds and waters it until – hey presto! A white carpet fit for any bride – truly beautiful.

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Rose

      Z. candida thrives in the your climate, and is by far the most popular species in Auckland. I have however seen a few other species over there, so its worth keeping your eyes peeled if you enjoy these bulbs.

      Thanks for the tip on promoting flowering. I will have to give it a go myself and see how long it takes to get flowers. This could be very useful as I have a large planting of Z.candida…. I suspect the timing might vary and flowering may be a little faster in my warmer climate.

      Arno

  6. Robyn Jensen on said:

    We have a plague of black and white striped caterpillars eating the leaves of our Z candidas. Does anyone know what they are?

    • Hi Robyn, it sounds as if you have an infestation of the dreaded lily caterpillar, Spodoptera picta. It can ruin many lily plants like clivea and crinum overnight. I hadn’t realised they ate Zantedeschia too. They are most active in warm humid weather and during the night. You can use a product like Dipel or Success which have a bacillus that only affects caterpillars but you’d better be quick as it can take a while to be effective.

      • Robyn Jensen on said:

        Thank you Catherine. I’ve checked the lily caterpillar, and thankfully it isn’t like ours. They look like the Joseph’s Coat moth, but it doesn’t mention Zephyranthes as a plant they attack.

        • I’ve done some more research and can’t find anyone in any part of the world talking about caterpillars on Zephyranthes. In fact several sources claim they’re just about immune to pest attack due to the high alkaloid content in the leaves. If you can send a photo to info@gardendrum.com, that might help us figure this out.

          • Elspeth on said:

            Hi, we’ve got black and white caterpillars eating ours too! In Brisbane. I’ll try to send a photo.

    • Phil on said:

      I currently have a few Brithys Crini eating away at my white crocus up here in Brisbane. I am hoping the colder weather will slow them down. Just a shame they turn into a moth instead of a butterfly which I wouldn’t mind.

  7. Arno King on said:

    I have seen Zephyranthes severely eaten by caterpillars on the Sunshine Coast. I have also had scattered bulbs eaten at my place. I do not believe the culprit is Lily caterpillar (Spodoptera picta) and will now keep a lookout for the white spotted black caterpillars of Brithys crini – thanks Phil.

    Where I have seen infestations occur, the plants were in excessively shaded or wet areas and not ideal growing conditions for Zephyranthes. The damage I had in my garden occurred during an extended dry period when the plants were stressed.

    As with most plants, I would suggest that the plants health and nutritional needs should be met to ensure they are less attractive to pest infestation. This means applying a complete balanced fertiliser with all the essential nutrients including trace elements. I use biological fertilisers based on balanced ground rock minerals as I believe they are best suited to warm climate gardens which experience heavy rainfall and rely on high biological activity to support plant health. I use Nutri-tech Solutions products, but there are several similar products on the market.

    Applying organic mulch regularly and applying humates (humic acid, brown coal) to the soil also enhances biological activity, which in turn enhances plant health and viitality.

    I also plant highly aromatic plants near plants such as Crinum sp which have a tendency to attract pests. These include ornamentals such as common coleus, Allherb (Plectranthus amboinensis) and various gingers. The aromas tend to confuse pests looking for food sources.

  8. Hewie on said:

    Hi there

    I didn’t see those special hybrid Zephyranthes at Garden by the Bay. May I know where about they were planted?

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Hewie

      There is a mass of Zephyranthes in the new garden beds at the base of the flower dome, opposite the silver garden. In particular there is a mass of the red flowering ‘Singapore Pride’, which is the plant in my photograph above.

      I hope these directions are helpful to you next time you visit.

  9. Theresa stagg on said:

    Anybody know where to buy the yellow, hot pink and salmon coloured rain lilies in Qld besides Gumtree or EBay. Postage ridiculous price,
    Theresa

      • Theresa Stagg on said:

        Thank you for the information and I will certainly place an order. Might be a small one but we only have just relocated to Woodgate from Yeppoon and the garden is much smaller.
        Regards
        Theresa

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