Japan’s orange surprise lily, Lycoris sanguinea

The warmer areas of Japan are home to the orange surprise lily, Lycoris sanguinea. It can be seen growing near streams in deciduous woodlands as well as open moist grasslands. While not as showy as its brethren L. radiata, it flowers a full month ahead, right in the midst of the deadly heat of August.

Lycoris sanguinea leaves
The leaves of Lycoris sanguinea start growth in winter in my garden. They will grow a bit later in colder winter areas.

Just as the rains of the summer monsoon abate and the oven turns on in southern Japan’s forests, this odd flower shows its face. Starting in late July the single flower scape grows with its sheathed clump of buds to height of 40 cm or more. By mid August a loose truss of 3-6 light orange, spidery flowers, with their pistil and stamens protruding well beyond the petals, hang in summer heat. They last up to a week or so before giving in to the sweltering temperatures.

Seed set is fast and by mid fall you hardly know there was a plant growing in that spot. The bulbs are completely subterranean and remain dormant until February when the new leaves begin their growth. These expand quickly in broad arching clumps of blue-green strap-like leaves, 30-60 cm in length. They remain green throughout the spring and early summer monsoon, going down sometime in mid July, a few weeks before the flower stalks initiate.

Lycoris sanguinea is represented by two varieties in Japan, v. sanguinea and v. kiusiana. The latter is a larger plant overall, but otherwise is very similar to the standard type. A third variety, v. koreana, is rare and synonymous with L. koreana, a species found in South Korea and the islands between Japan and Korea. I have not been able to determine which name is considered valid for this type since both are used by various authors.

Lycoris sanguinea flower
The flower of Lycoris sanguinea doesn’t quite live up to its name, which means “blood”, but it is still attractive.

Like other members of the genus Lycoris, this species exhibits natural polyploidy, that is, any given plant can have extra sets of chromosomes. Both Japanese varieties are represented by fertile diploids (2n=22), sterile triploids (2n=33), and even some fertile tetraploids (2n=44). This pattern holds for v. koreana as well. Regardless, in general L. sanguinea is a fertile species with regular meiotic division, unlike many Lycoris species and hybrids.

The upshot of all this is that L. sanguinea is self reproducing by seed and its distribution throughout southern Japan from the Kanto Region of Honshu southward to Shikoku and Kyushu speaks to this. It also means this species is a useful parent in producing new Lycoris hybrids – a somewhat rare trait in this bizarre genus.

I first came across this species one late winter day on the largest mountain in the Fukuoka City area, Mt. Sefuri. Free flowing, dam-free rivers are a rarity in much of southern Japan and Mt. Sefuri has a lovely stream that has been altered little through the years. Its banks also retain the natural flora of the area, including a largely deciduous forest at the relatively high elevation (600~1000 meters). Forests just a couple kilometers away at lower elevations are dominated by broad leaf subtropical evergreen trees.

Lycoris sanguinea bulbs
The bulbs of Lycoris sanguinea look much like Amaryllis, which isn’t surprising since they are closely related.

While walking up the stream and admiring its aquamarine blue plunge pools, I noticed a broad leafed plant not unlike a Narcissus species coming into growth. It was growing in clumps here and there all along the watercourse and surrounding forest. As I headed further upstream I was confronted with fields of them growing in a near carpet under the leafless trees. Huh, now what kind of plant was this? I took a few bulbs that had been washed out from the winter snow melt at the river’s bank and headed home. The plants grew well for me and went dormant midsummer.

I had forgotten about this mystery plant until the next summer when I returned to that lovely river to do something I crave in Kyushu’s near unbearable August heat: to go skinny dipping in that river’s deep, cold pools. I knew of one very nice pool secreted away from the trail, a perfect spot for a private swim. Heading upstream in anticipation of that cool, delicious water at a near run I was literally in the midst of a field of orange flowers before I even noticed them. I had found my mystery plant once again!

The ride to the river and hike up the mountain was long and hot, so I decided to go for a swim first. After that I went and took as many pictures of this fascinating plant as the resident horse flies would allow – nasty big beasts the size of your thumb and plentiful. Another quick dip in another pool and I was off in a near gallop while I still had some flesh on my exposed legs.

In the years since those first encounters, I have found this lovely plant very easy to grow, requiring virtually no help from me. The small handful of bulbs I started with have multiplied into large clumps which I occasionally divide, giving the extras to my neighbors. I grow them in the native soil – a volcanic loam, acidic in reaction. They are in fairly shady locations, but since these are mostly winter growing plants, they get quite a bit of light while in growth. Bright shade to full sun is fine for them.

Lycoris sanguinea flowers
Since the plants form clumps, the flowers of Lycoris sanguinea are produced in large clusters. As you can see from this photo, the name orange surprise lily is appropriate for this species.

The orange surprise lily lives up to its name, flowering in the worst heat of August when you would least expect to see such delicate flowers blooming. Beyond that, it can be appreciated not only for its lovely flowers, but also its foliage in the spring months. In warmer climates it will grow these very early, usually starting in February, but expect it to start later in more northern gardens, just before the spring crocus flower. Given their love of water, I recommend growing them moist year round.

The flowers are not quite as showy as most other Lycoris, but they are plentiful. The name sanguinea, meaning “blood”, isn’t quite right, at least not for the normal varieties native to Japan. They are more a pale orange color. It is said that true alba flowers exist with green veining. The variety koreana has brick red flowers.

Lycoris sanguinea in habitat
Lycoris sanguinea is often found along streams in deciduous woodlands. It is surprising indeed to see them in deep shade and in flower during the worst heat of summer. Mt. Sefuri, Fukuoka Prefecture, Kyushu, Japan.

I’ve heard this species is grown throughout USDA cold hardiness zone 6, and perhaps colder with some protection. They probably can be grown from zones 6a-9a without much trouble. Some cooling in winter will be necessary, while in summer they appreciate lots of warmth.

Not the beauty of the genus, but still a lovely species and easy to grow and flower. The orange surprise lily is yet another flowering bulb worth adding to your woodland garden or lily bed.


3 Replies to “Japan’s orange surprise lily, Lycoris sanguinea”

  1. What is the beautiful fern that the Lycoris sanguinea is growing with in the fourth and fifth pictures? Thanks.

    1. Hello Celeste,

      That is the lovely “upside-down fern”, Arachniodes standishii .(click on the link for its article). It is a very beautiful fern that’s not too demanding in the garden and should be cold hardy down to USDA cold hardiness zone 6. It prefers a wetter site than most ferns, but as long as it doesn’t dry out it should be fine. I believe that Fancy Fronds Nursery in Washington State as well as Plant Delights in North Carolina have it for sale if you reside in the USA.


  2. What an informative and nicely written article about this remarkable “lily”. I had come across some other species of Lycoris that are not germane to Japan within the city limits. And then on a hike to one of the lovely gorges in Shikoku, we found Lycoris sanguinea all along the river. One thing that can be said about the heat is that the temperature is all of 10 degrees cooler along these riparian deciduous margins … not hot at all! We also found another lily blooming there: Cardiocrinum cordatum. This unusual lily has leaves that are more like a dicot, hence the scientific name.

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