It doesn’t seem possible that it was 35 years ago (mas o menos) that I visited a friend’s backyard garden on rural U.S. 287 in the quiet little town of Mansfield. I was buying daylilies from Tom Hughes and it was June, but as garden friends often do, Tom gave me a gift of a plant I’d never grown. He called it oxblood lily, and he said it would do really well in my garden just as it had in his. Judging from the long row of it from which he was digging a bagful for me, I could tell it was thriving.
A lot has changed since that visit to Tom’s garden. U.S. 287 and Mansfield certainly have changed. They’re overrun with cars. My daylily plot where I planted the oxbloods has changed. It’s now overrun with shade from two big pecan trees. I had to move the daylilies out where they could get more sun. Actually, I had to give most of them away because, like Tom’s oxbloods, they grew and thrived and filled up all my space.
But the one thing that hasn’t changed has been that original planting of Tom’s oxblood lilies. It’s right where I put it 35 years ago. It has gotten thicker and it has spread wider. It blooms more heavily, and it’s even more beautiful. And it’s doing all that in spite of the shade.
I spent years trying to nail down the plant’s scientific name. Tom didn’t have it when he gave me the bagful. I didn’t devote hours per week to it, but I was always looking and listening. And then I found it: Rhodophiala bifida. Tuck that away for any online searching you may want to do, because surprisingly, it’s used pretty often.
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I tried to find more oxblood lilies for probably 25 years. I tried really hard, but I always struck out swinging. Once in a while I’d see a bulb for sale in a fancy cellophane bag for $10 or $12, but there wasn’t much way I could justify buying more bulbs to plant elsewhere in my garden at those prices when I already had all those others growing down in that original planting.
I’d been buying haworthias and aloes of all types on eBay with great success for probably five years. One day, in a quite random moment, I decided to do a quick search for “oxblood lilies.” (I put it in the plural, because one bulb just didn’t interest me and eBay searches take you quite literally.) I also kicked in the scientific name to give myself a second chance at success.
To my surprise, after a couple of weeks of daily searching, a source popped up. She was in California, and she had 75 “large” bulbs up for sale at a very fair price. I think they were a dollar or less per bulb. There are no quarantines against shipping oxblood lilies into Texas, so I bought them in August. To my surprise, they bloomed their very first September.
The next year I looked again and there were several additional sources, most from Arizona. Again, no shipping quarantines. So I bought another 75 for even less money. But those arrived and they were much smaller. I looked back at the original eBay posting, and the vendor had been truthful. They’d been described as “small bulbs.” I’d just been in too much of a hurry.
As I was preparing this column, I looked at eBay and several recognized national bulb websites, and oxbloods are indeed becoming more commonly offered. Prices are all over the map, as are the sizes of the bulbs. Some local nurseries (always my preferred way to buy plants) may even offer them now. It never hurts to call and ask.
What it takes to succeed…
Before you rush out and start planting, let me give you a synopsis of what it takes to grow really nice oxblood lilies.
▪ Most oxblood lilies are red, but a pink type is also sold. I’ve never grown it, but I soon will. I just bought some last week.
▪ Mature height while blooming: 12 to 14 inches, so they’re best along or near the front of the floral border.
▪ These are bulbs. Part of the year they will be in bloom (primarily September). Part of the year they will have foliage. (Primarily fall, winter and into the spring) Plant them where they can remain undisturbed for many years, and always allow their foliage to die to the ground naturally before you remove the dried leaves.
▪ If you’re going to dig and relocate oxblood lilies, do so soon after their leaves have died back to the ground. New root growth will start up in late summer, and you don’t want to disturb them then.
▪ Space bulbs 3 inches apart in groupings or drifts. Avoid long, straight rows. Plant approximately twice as deep as the bulb is tall. For large bulbs that would mean 2 to 3 inches deep.
▪ Plant them in sun or part sun. They thrive in well-prepared garden soil. Good drainage is critical, especially while the plants are dormant.
▪ Our plants have rebloomed three times each September the past several years. Turnaround is about 10 days. It’s amazing how quickly they bounce back into flower.
So that’s my story on a little plant gift that became a big plant favorite with the Sperrys. I hope I’ve passed along the enthusiasm that Tom Hughes shared with me. This is a plant that really deserves it.