Rain lilies are charming summer blooming bulbs that will flourish in much of the Southwest – into the USDA Zone 8 and some into zone 7.
Rain Lilies are Zephyranthes
I said “rain lilies” in the title because I didn’t want to daunt you with the scientific name, Zephyranthes. But if gardeners wrote alphabet books, Z would be for Zephyranthes!
Rain Lily Common Names
With close to 200 species and an extensive territory, Zephyranthes have a variety of common names, some of them quite appealing. In the Caribbean, they are called “flowers of the West wind.” Other common names are zephyr lily, fairy lily, and fire lily.
Long ago Natives of Florida told early Spanish explorers the plant was “atamasco,” and atamasco lily is another common name. In the Southwest we call them rain lilies because they appear with the summer rains. Luckily for us, they even appear without the summer rains – which many of us are experiencing this summer 2023.
Zephyranthes are some of the most delicate, graceful flowers there are. They come in red, pink, rose, coral, white, pale yellow, vivid lemon yellow, deep orange, or in sunset blends of colors. Most Zephyranthes bloom repeatedly through the summer and into early fall.
These lovely bulbs are classified in the same family as Amaryllis. They are native to the New World (the Americas), and grow best in areas of warm summers, generally USDA zones 8 and warmer. Depending on species, some survive winters to 0 degrees F, meaning in USDA zones 7.
How to Grow Rain Lilies
Rain lilies are usually found in Southwest nurseries starting in late spring. They are offered growing as grassy-looking clumps in one gallon pots. They will come out of the pot in a big clump of 20 or so bulbs with roots all tangled. You can simply plant the entire clump intact, or separate them and spread them out around the garden.
Last week I wrote about daffodils (because now is the time to order them), and those are commonly sold as naked bulbs – without foliage. It is because there are more people to purchase daffodils than rain lilies (USDA zone 3 – 9 afterall).
Rain lilies do best with a little shade during our intense Southwest summers. If you plant them around the base of trees or shrubs, everyone wins. You get a ground cover that shades the ground so your trees lose less water to evaporation, and Zephyranthes get some shade. The cover of Zephyranthes leaves hides fallen leaves, which turn into nutrient rich compost for continued plant health, and you have less raking. It’s a win, win, and win situation.
Soil for Rain Lilies
Ever the scientist – I did an experiment. One pot from the nursery was divided into four clumps. Each clump was planted along the east facing wall on a drip line. Soil was plain desert soil, desert soil with compost added, desert soil with added sand, and in the rose bed. They all survived and bloomed, for a number of years (until we moved at least).
The clump that grew largest and bloomed best was in the rose bed, next best was desert soil with sand, then desert soil with compost, and kinda’ measly were the ones in plain desert soil. You get to decide how much work your want to do to your soil before you plant. (Which reminds me – look for my online class “The Elements of Southwest Gardening” this fall. We will start by talking about our unique soils. )
Rain Lily Selection
The most common rain lily in the Southwest is the biggest Zephyranthes of all, now very confusingly considered Zephyranthes minuta – because botanists decided that Z. grandiflora is an “invalid” name. Flowers open to around 5 inches across on a 1 foot stem. Generally a warm glowing pink, occasionally a rosy red, these flowers extend above the narrow, arching 12 inch long, ribbon-like leaves.
There are numerous varieties and cultivars, since Zephyranthes species will cross readily to produce a blue-ribbon blend of colors. ‘Prairie Sunset’ has large coral flowers with traces of pink and yellow. ‘Apricot Queen’ is low growing and features apricot flowers with a yellow blush. And for the Texans reading this, remember the ‘Alamo’ – with deep rose-pink flowers flushed with yellow. And there are unique varieties – like Zephyranthes X ‘Twisted Sister’ – a Yucca Do release, with flowers that start pastel apricot and fade to ivory-white.
You Can Grow That
No mater what they are called, or what variety you choose, Zephyranthes are a lovely addition to any yard. Just pick your favorite color (or colors) and tuck some in around your trees and shrubs for future fantastic flowers.
For the Plant Nerds – (Some) Zephyranthes Species
The taxonomy of Zephyranthes is slightly mixed up, as it always seems to happen when plants become popular with gardeners. But here are some names you can take to the nursery.
Zephyranthes minuta with large pink flowers (occasionally sold as Z. grandiflora, Z. rosea, or Z. robustus).
Z. citrina has bright yellow flowers on very short stalks (occasionally sold as Z. sulphurea).
For white, select Z. candida, with stiffly upright round leaves and generally non-fragrant flowers.
Atamasco lily, Z. atamasco, has wider, straplike leaves and fragrant white flowers. This species will do better in at least 1/2 day of shade here, due to summer sun intensity and heat.
Want red flowers?
Hard to find, but worth it, is Z. bifolia, with cardinal-red flowers
And then there is Z. macrosiphon with bright red flowers.
Z. tubiflora, from Peru, is called the fire lily, with flowers the deep orange of a campfire.
Help Out a Local Non-Profit – At no additional cost!
If you order your bulbs from Brent & Becky’s Bulbs via their “Blooming Bucks” you can help the local Southwestern Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute – at no additional cost to you! Here is the link – to Brent & Becky’s – just scroll down and click on the Tierra del Sol name, and it will take you on to their website. Then, when you order, Brent & Becky’s will donate to Tierra del Sol. And thank you!