Tips for planting the hardy rain lily in the Southwest

Tips for planting the hardy rain lily in the Southwest

by Jacqueline A. Soule

If Southwestern gardeners wrote alphabet books, Z would be for Zephyranthes — a wonderful, long-blooming, grassy green perennial with gloriously graceful flowers in a sunset blend of colors.

Zephyranthes are native to the warmer areas of the Americas, from the Arkansas River south to Argentina. With such extensive territory, Zephyranthes have a wide variety of common names that include: zephyr lily, fairy lily, rain lily and "brujitas" — little witches — because the flowers appear like magic after a rain.

Although many of the common names include "lily," these plants are actually in the Amaryllis family; however, they are much less fussy than their Amaryllis cousins.

Commonly sold in one-gallon pots as "rain lilies," there are often 20 or more bulbs per pot. You can plant the entire clump intact in the ground or separate the bulbs. Plant rain lilies now, water to help them become established, and enjoy. No pruning, no muss, no fuss.

Rain lilies do well in containers. You can plant them with most houseplants and grow them indoors, though they'll flower less prolifically due to lower light levels.

Outdoor planting protocol depends on where you live. Without special care, rain lilies are winter hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture zone 7. A city like Denver is zone 5, so special placement is required.

Plant rain lilies where they'll be protected from excessive snow and get ample sunlight in spring. Under the boughs of a deciduous tree is a good location, along with any warmer spot.

Rain lilies can stand desert dryness, but if you want to keep the graceful green leaves showing all year in places such as Phoenix, you'll need to water them during dry spells. Allow a week or so between watering to encourage flowering.

Rain lilies do best with filtered shade during Southwestern summers. Ideally, plant them around the base of trees.

They form a ground cover, shading the soil so trees lose less water to evaporation. The ground cover hides fallen leaves, which turn into nutrient-rich compost for continued plant health, and you have less raking. It's a win-win situation.

The taxonomy of Zephyranthes is slightly mixed up, but here are some names you can take to the nursery. Most cold tolerant is Z. atamasco, with upright, strap-like leaves and fragrant white flowers. It will need shade in Phoenix but should thrive in Denver sun.

Also cold tolerant, Z. candida has stiffly upright, round leaves with typically white, non-fragrant flowers.

Z. grandiflora has large pink flowers that should do well in both cities; it is occasionally mislabeled rosea or robustus.

Z. citrina has bright yellow flowers on very short stalks and may not survive Denver winters outdoors; it is occasionally mislabeled sulphurea.

Hard to find, but worth the effort are Z. bifolia, with cardinal-red flowers, and Z. macrosiphon, with bright red flowers. Z. tubiflora, from Peru, is called the fire lily, with flowers the orange of a campfire.

There are also numerous cultivars since Zephyranthes will cross readily to produce a blend of colors. "Prairie Sunset" has coral flowers with pink and yellow. "Apricot Queen" features apricot flowers with a yellow blush. And for Texans, remember the "Alamo" with deep rose-pink flowers flushed with yellow.

With shimmering leaves of green and glorious star-shaped blooms appearing in their midst like magic, this "flower of the west wind" is an absolutely low-care, low-fuss beauty. What's not to love about Zephyranthes?

Jacqueline Soule is a garden writer based in Tucson, Ariz. She has lived and gardened in almost every U.S. Department of Agriculture zone from 2A to 9B. Everywhere she's lived, she's striven to make her yard a haven of serenity. Soule currently has 19 different Zephyranthes species or cultivars blooming around her yard.

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