Surprises brighten a late summer garden

by How Does Your Garden Grow? By Sharon Daniels

As I started fall garden cleanup in a bed which gets little attention, I was surprised to see two brilliant red blooms despite all the summer flowers having faded.

They were red spider lilies (Lycoris radiata). I had never seen them there, and didn’t plant them, but they were adjacent to Spanish bluebells shared by a Master Gardener perhaps ten years ago, prior to his death. I wonder if the lilies simply were beside the bluebells when he dug plants, and came along.

I mentioned this unusual happening to Master Gardener friends. Amazingly, later that week one of them discovered brilliant red spider lilies in her own garden. It was another surprise as she did not plant them.

You may know about “surprise lilies” which suddenly appear where you had forgotten they were. They may be called “resurrection lilies” or by the somewhat bawdy term “naked ladies.”

Late last summer I moved a clump of them from another property, but to date they have not appeared in the new spot. I assume I did the wrong thing by moving them and, sure enough, one reference notes that they should not be moved. Another, though, says if moved, it may take two years or longer for them to appear again, so I hope next fall they will surprise me.

Spider lilies sprout narrow leaves in spring, then when foliage ripens it disappears. Flowers appear on bare stems in late summer or fall, and they probably surprise many property owners.

Plant these lilies in fall, three times deeper than the bulb is wide, in a spot with good drainage. Mark the place because after spring foliage ripens, there will be no sign that a plant is there. You don’t want to mistakenly set another plant on that spot because in September or October you’ll get your spider lily blooms.

If you don’t care for red, they are available in bright yellow, and an ‘Alba’ cultivar with white blooms will take light shade.

Another happy accident was the appearance of Perilla in a new bed which gets more sun than most of my property. I’ve had Perilla, a member of the mint family, for years. It grows a few inches tall and has a muted purplish color.

Yes, it spreads but shade acts as a control. My new “surprise” was a large clump of it—which I did not plant but likely was transported some 50 yards away by wind or creature. This clump is nearly three feet tall and the color is a striking red-purple, very colorful and a joy when other perennials look tired.

Perilla often is mistaken for coleus. It is an annual with a dependable trait of reseeding itself. Some varieties are blood-red. If you have Perilla, it will spread.

A cultigen of it is called shiso, and if you have made sushi or other Japanese dishes you may know it. Shiso has a flavor of anise or licorice.

One note about fall cleanup: do your plants a favor by using leaves you rake up. Break down piles of them with a lawn mower to set aside and make leaf mold or to use as mulch, or rake several inches of leaves under trees and shrubs for winter protection. Put leaves in black bags, set them in an out-of-the-way place and they will become leaf mold to enrich your garden in the future.

Sharon Daniels is a Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener volunteer.