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Some Links for Seed School Class 1 August 20, 2011

Naked Ladies--Wildly Successful Plant of the Month

In California, August is the month of the naked ladies. They are to be found dancing in gardens and along roads up and down the state. They dance, however, only in the wind, being rooted firmly in the ground--not wild California women, but pink lily-like blossoms of the plant Amaryllis belladonna. The fanciful name was inspired by the fact the plans have no trace of leaf when they are blooming.

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These, in our neighborhood, were planted behind a low privet hedge, so they peek modestly over the top when viewed from the street. (Not everyone finds them shocking, though, in Italy, they have the much more modest common name of Madonna lily, and in Spain, a name that translates to "Girls going to School.")

Below, I shot a cluster of them close up, so you can see the big bulbs at the top of the soil.

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This is a plant of mysteries. The first is the absence of leaves when it blooms. The explanation for their lack is that they have strap-like leaves in winter that you could easily mistake for Agapanthus leaves. They dry up completely well before the flower stem emerges.

The second mystery is why they sometimes refuse to bloom. In the wild, in the chaparrel-like fynbos of the Cape Province, they bloom only after a wildfire strikes--which happens every 5 to 40 years. In gardens, they tend to bloom every year, but if they are in shade in winter and spring, they may not bloom at all. One guess is that the wildfires remove other plants that shade the leaves in winter.

In South Africa, botanists puzzled for a long time about how the flowers were pollinated, considering a hawk moth, carpenter bees, and other bees. Whatever does it there, something also does it here, because seeds do form. They are soft pearly pink or white balls the size of BBs. I germinated them in pots, just to see, but they don't usually germinate in the garden. This is probably because fall rains are later here than in South Africa, so the delicate, fleshy seeds dry out before they can grow.

These plants grow nicely in unwatered parts of the garden. They rarely need any irrigation at all, being from the western, Cape region of South Africa that has a climate very similar to ours--wet in winter, dry in summer.You'd only need to water a bit in an unusually dry winter. And, while the plant has no need for summer water, it can tolerate a moderate amount of it in spring and summer in soil with good drainage, meaning you can grow it in the same bed as other plants that are moderately drought-tolerant. The bulbs are best left alone for a number of years to produce large clumps.

A good time to plant naked lady bulbs is late summer, when they are most dormant. If you are dividing an existing stand, dig them as soon as the blooms fade.

In South Africa, naked ladies are often interplanted with native bulbs that bloom at other times, such as spring blooming Agapanthus or winter blooming Chasmanthe. (Chasmanthe is a tall, orange or yellow-flowered plant often mistaken for crocosmia here.)

These were among the South African bulbs Thomas Jefferson obtained and tried to grow in his greenhouse, though in general, he wasn't a very successful greenhouse operator and soon gave up, deciding to use the greenhouse as a sun room instead. By 1850, the bulbs were introduced to California, which accounts for the fact they are sometimes seen blooming in places where no one lives now. They have survived in abandoned farm sites and on Alcatraz Island, where they were part of the prisoner or employee gardens recently rennovated. (While they persist, and multiply, they don't generally spread far from the original planting, so if they were planted in a row, the row remains, just blooming more profusely after many years.)

Gus Broucaret, instructor of Horticulture at City College of San Francisco tells me that as a boy in San Francisco in the 1930s or 40s, he would have dirt fights with his friends on undeveloped hillsides, and then dig up a naked lady bulb, slice it open and use the sudsy sap inside to clean their hands before going home to face mothers who didn't much approve of their dirtying play.

Naked ladies are deer and gopher resistant and are fragrant. If you have enough to cut as well as ornament the garden, you will find they are excellent cut flowers.

A similar plant, of interest to those with smaller gardens is Nerine bowdenii, which has pink flowers on bare stems to 2 feet tall in late summer. 

There is much more on Amaryllis belladonna and other easy heirloom California garden plants in my book Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California, available in many local bookstores and nurseries. (See cover at right.)

 

Comments

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Pam Peirce

Hi Marilyn,

I see bulbs in local SF Bay Area nurseries every year. They are usually available in late summer, since right after they bloom is the best time to dig and replant the dormant bulbs. If you don't find them locally at that time of year, you'll have to do a web search and try to find some online. Just be sure that you are getting Amaryllis belladonna, and not the plant commonly called amaryllis, which is really in the plant genus Hippocastenum, because that is a very different plant!

Marilyn Mansfield

I really, really would like to buy some bulbs of the naked lady!

Please tell me how and where and how much?

They are beautiful. I live in San Dimas,CA always sunny.

Thank you, Marilyn

Pam Peirce

To answer the question of whether naked ladies are hardy in Grant's Pass Oregon: This location is in USDA Hardiness Zone 8b. Naked lady bulbs are hardy to Zone 7, so they should be fine in Grant's Pass. However, they need to be planted deeper in colder winter areas. In Zone 10 (such as San Francisco), the bulbs should be planted with the tops just at the soil surface. They should be planted progressively deeper where winter will be colder, until, in Zone 7, the tops of the bulbs should be six inches under the surface. So in Grant's Pass, I guess they should be about 4 1/2 inches deep. Plant them in late summer or early fall, as that is when they are most dormant.
In your climate, you can also grow red, orange-red, white, and pink flowered Lycoris species. Some species are like a shorter naked lady, some have spidery flowers, with projecting stamens.

LAURIELLE CUTHBERTSON

Good afternoon. Can Naked Ladies grow in Grants Pass Oregon?

Pam Peirce

In answer to the question of dividing naked lady bulbs, I think bulbs that large should be able to thrive after separating, assuming the separated bulbs all have roots. The smaller ones may take a while to bloom again. In the best case, naked lady bulbs that were moved often skip a year of bloom.

Pam Peirce

In answer to the question about growing naked ladies in a pot, I can only say that bulbs I planted in a large pot never bloomed. Maybe it was my rather chilly microclimate? The fact I couldn't provide all day sun? I do know that the plant can be a bit temperamental and may not bloom for a couple of years after they have been moved. Good luck!

Azita Lo

Hello, I found this article searching for the answer to my question. Sending this email is a shot in the dark as the article is from over four years ago. Can naked ladies be grown in a pot? I have a small yard and need the space they occupy for a vegetable garden.

Thanks,

Azita

Sharon

I need to move my Naked Ladies. I have dug them up and the bulb is about the size of a grapefruit. Can these bulbs be split or would that hurt the flower?

Pam Peirce

Hi Cindy, Your naked lady bulbs can't be stored dry, since they need to grow and make leaves this winter for next year's flowers to form. Your best bet, if you can't replant them in the ground, would be to put them in potting mix, in containers, preferably 10-12" pots a foot or so deep, or a box a foot deep that allows for them to be set 6 inches or so apart. Don't forget to keep them moist in the winter, They will die back in late spring, and then you can remove the papery dead leaves. Ideally, you'd transplant them back into the ground in about August, when they are again most dormant, but if you don't disturb the roots much, I think you can do it when the leaves die back. This whole process may cause them not to bloom for a year or two, but with a chance to grow leaves, they should survive.

cindy

Hi Pam,
I am having to dig up my naked ladies as we are putting in a new fence. How is the best way to store the bulbs until I can replant them back along the fence. Also is it best to plant them in the next month (Mid to late Oct) or wait until spring?
Thank you,
Cindy

Pam Peirce

Best to wait until the leaves of naked ladies turn brown. Then they practically fall off and need only be picked up. (They'd make great compost.) If you cut the leaves when they are still green, and possibly even if they were yellow, on the way to dying, it could reduce blooming, since they are busily transporting all the food they made to the bulbs before they die. This is always a problem in a small garden. What to do with plants when they are out of bloom. The best idea is probably to choose mostly ones with year-round interest, but keep the seasonal ones you love. You might decide waiting for your 100 naked ladies to shed leaves is worth it, or might decide 100 is a bit too many of them in the off season, so reduce your planting of them. There is also an option to hide spent plants while they are dying back, but you must not grow something over the bulbs, as they need heat and sun to stimulate flowering.

Patrice

Can naked lady leaves be cut off? Will they still flower if this is done. I have about 100 and the leaves are everywhere. I don't like things looking messy.

Karen

I live in the foothills near Chico, CA at about 2000 feet. I planted 6 Bella Donna lilies about 6 or seven years ago and have only had two blossoms in all that time. They all get glorious leaves in late winter/spring that last a long time. Then the leaves die back until next year...but no flowers appear. They do get watered along with the iris near them, and quite a bit of shade. Is the situation hopeless? I love these flowers as I remember them from my childhood in Hayward, CA. What to do?

Pam Peirce

Note that the offer of 5,000 naked lady bulbs has been placed in February, when the plants are in leaf. This is a poor time to transplant the bulbs. Better would be August or September, when they are about to bloom or have just bloomed. Then is when the bulb is dormant and can handle transplanting best. To learn more about propagating and growing naked lady bulbs and many other common plants, read my book Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California, available in many bookstores.

Ken Hettman

Hello, Our church purchased a Farm in Half Moon Bay, CA. We have about 5,000 Naked Lady bulbs we would like to sell. Our Farm web site: www.anandavalleyfarm.org Please contact me at 650-595-5422 or E-mail. Thank you, Ken

Pam Peirce

Sounds like you have had some mayhem in the amaryllis area! If the leaves are destroyed, the plants won't have the energy to make any new flower buds for the next year. They could even be killed. Time will tell, I guess. If they do bloom, and you can move them to a safer place, the time to do it is during or just after bloom. In fact, that might be a good time to dig them all and get them out of harm's way, just before they start to grow leaves again.

Shawn

My husband mows that area with a riding mow so the leaves didn't actual grow so will that keep the flowers from blooming. When Is a good time to moved them.will it take another 5 years for them to bloom.

Pam Peirce

Sloat Nursery in the Bay Area was advertising several different varieties of naked lady bulbs last month. Shouldn't be hard to find them in this area. Call local nurseries.

R M Fisher

Can you suggest where to purchase Pink/Naked Lady BULBS - thanks roger

Pam Peirce

Chris, I think you mean that when the flowers fade small bead-like things that look like pink or white pearls form on the stalks. They are not bulbs, but are the seeds of this plant. Unlike most seeds, they do not dry out so they can remain dormant to grow later, but must be planted right away.
I planted them one year and sure enough, they produced little leafy A. belladona plants. I planted in a pot, in potting mix. But it took a few years to make full-sized plants. I gave them away before they bloomed, which can take at least 3 years and up to 6 years. Water them when they have leaves. They may not go dormant as long as older plants do.
This information and much more about 50 common plants and about ornamental gardening in Northern California is in my book Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California.

Chris

When the stocks die off and I picked all the pods of the dead stocks on top, and they look like small bulbs, Is this true, or am I crazy, didn't know if they were like seed bulbs?

K Kline

Will naked ladies do well in decomposed granet, and will they tolerate extrem heat for at least 3 1/2 months out of the year? I have a hillside I would like to plant them on.

Peter Carey

Where can I buy naked lady bulbs ?

Pam Peirce

Your description is perfect for Lychoris radiata, or red spider lily, a bulb plant that is native to Japan. It has similar habits to those of Amaryllis belladonna, but, as you noticed, the flowers are red with narrow, divided petals, while A. belladonna flowers are usually a mid-pink, and are shaped like funnels. Red spider lily is better adapted to your location than ours, being hardy to your colder winters and blooming best in hot summers.
The two plants both tolerate dry summers and have toxic bulbs that repel gophers and other rodents. These traits explain why both, in their areas of adaptation, survive without care to establish semi-wild stands.

Dorothy L. Bird

I lost my naked ladies and want to buy more.where my I order them? Thank you

Mimi H

I'm in east central Oklahoma. The 'naked ladies' here are a real bright red and the petals are very narrow like a delicate orchid. Other than that the plants sound to be the same. I've found huge areas of the bulbs just under the surface. There had been no flowers there and no foliage apparent. With advice from a neighbor I dug them up, separated the bulbs, let them air dry out of the sun for a few days and then planted them so the top was about an inch under the surface in places that I wanted them. The bloomed just fine. I did this in late April. The foliage ours get is like a little puff ball - a slightly bluish green with a lighter stripe down the center. Flower stalks are 12 to 18" and the foliage puffs are about a foot high and about the same wide. Foliage stays nice all winter and dies just before it is time to mow the grass, and there is no sign of them until they bloom in early fall.

Pam Peirce

Hi Glena,

Naked ladies will bloom in late summer and are most dormant right after they bloom, not before. The best time to dig them is while they are blooming or right after they bloom. I think your best bet would be to plant them now, in a place that will get little water and that has good drainage. Set them with the tops showing aboveground. Because you dug them early, I don't know whether you will still get bloom this year, but you might. If you think of it, write to this blog and let us know if you did.

Glena Herrington

I dug up a box full of bulbs from a friend's house and I need to know what to do with them until I plant them in late summer.

Pam Peirce

Hi Sylvia,

When naked lady leaves are pale beige and barely attached to the bulb, you can just lift them away and compost them. By this time, the bulb has extracted all the food it can from the leaves and is using it to make a flower later in the summer.
However, please do not tie or fold green leaves of iris, daffodil, or any other plant. The plants need these leaves to remain exposed to light in order to photosynthesize the food they need to store over winter so they can bloom well next year. I assume here you are talking about bulbous iris. I know they can be unsightly, but when they are ready to be removed, the brown leaves pull readily from the plant. If you have to tug, they are not ready. I just removed leaves and stalks of my bulbous irises this week, though I had cut brown parts of some back earlier to tidy up.

Sylvia Grider

I have a few clumps of these in my yard. What should I do when the leaves die and just lie on the ground? Is it OK just to pull them off and compost them? Or do I need to fold them up and bind them like irises? I don't want to disturb the rhythm of the flowering process.

Weber

I'd forgotten about 'Nakid Ladies' till i read this. I had a patch growing in the garden but they have obviously died during last winter. I will be buying some more now to grow in the garden as they have been gorgeous for the previous 5 or so years.

Pam Peirce

Hi Diana,

Thanks for sharing this story. I can just see Mom trying to x-rate the name of these flowers and giving away the x-rated name as she did it! But as we can see, from the story of your grandmother, children's imagination is not necessarily to be thwarted!

Diana Peirce

Hi Pam
Just wanted to say we loved your blog article about Naked Ladies. As you no doubt recall,we have a veritable bevy of them here on the property in Vista...so many that we've needed to separate and move them twice now. Scott remembers your mother telling him and his sisters about them as children. She told the kids they were to call them "Pink Ladies" because their "real" name was "Naked Ladies" and that was an improper term for them to use. (Being kids, that just served as a challenge to see how often they could say "naked"!) That made me think about my grandmother...a proper lady for sure! When navel oranges first became available in the Northeast, Grandma showed them to us and explained why they were called navel. We immediately (at age 6-8 or so, I think), called them "Belly Button oranges". She was appalled and forbid us to say it again...which of course served as our own challenge...because it was an improper term for us to use!
Anyway, although we know that alot of your blog and column topics are centered hundreds of miles north of us, we continue to read and enjoy weekly, as we acclimate to the West Coast life....now 18 months and counting!
Much love
Tim and Diana

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