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.
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.
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.)