Oxblood Lilies (Rhodophiala bifida)

Each fall in Central Texas, bright red trumpets herald the approach of autumn.  These trumpets are the deep red flowers of the Oxblood lily. 

Oxbloods in my front bed

Oxblood lilies seem to be a bit of a regional secret.  I grew up in Waco and I was not familiar with them until I moved to Brenham.  The house that we bought was on an almost bald hill.  The previous owner was not much of a gardener.  However, he apparently liked bulbs.  The first fall that we were there, we discovered that he had left us red spider lilies (Lycoris radiate), yellow spider lilies (lycoris aurea) and oxbloods.  I instantly fell in love with these extraordinary plants.

This close up of oxbloods is from "The Southern Bulb Company"

Oxbloods are often called Schoolhouse Lilies because the bulbs send up their stalks right around the start of the school year.  Like rain lilies, their bloom is in response to the first fall rains. However, since there have been no fall rains this year, they will apparently also bloom in response to a good fall watering.  Another of their common names is Hurricane Lily.  Since most of the rain that falls in the Gulf South in August is the result of a late season hurricane, this is also a very appropriate name.

Oxbloods are native to South America.  An early German-Texan horticulturist named Peter Oberwetter is believed to be the first to import the oxbloods from Argentina.  Due to his efforts, the oxblood has been very popular in the areas of Texas originally settled by German settlers.  While they are gaining acceptance around the South and Central US, they have flourished in places like Brenham, La Grange, Independence, Round Top and Austin for the last 150 years.

Here the initial foliage of the oxblood is clearly visible.

Oxbloods naturalize and reproduce readily.  In fact, they are so hardy and so prolific that Scott Ogden says “No other bulb can match the fierce vigor, and adaptability of the oxblood lily”.    Because of their “tenacity and adaptability”, oxbloods have become one of the most common “pass along plants” in Texas.  Most of the people that have them got them as a division from someone else.  Finding a friend with a well established bed is still the best way to get them for your own garden as they are somewhat difficult to find in the nursery trade.  However, some specialty bulb growers like The Southern Bulb Company(http://www.southernbulbs.com/OxbloodLily/) now offer them for sale on line.

Black, long necked oxblood bulbs harvested with Grand Primo Narcissus this past spring

Oxbloods are very easy to grow and they are very reliable.  Their growth habit is just like that of other fall blooming bulbs.  The flowers appear on a single “bald” stalk in the fall.  The stalk is often accompanied by two long leaves.  After the flowers die, the rest of the foliage begins to appear.  The foliage grows into a clump of long, thin, deep green leaves that resemble mondo or lariope that lasts until June.  After that, the foliage dies back and the bulbs become dormant.  So, if you are going to divide them, June is the optimal time.  However, unlike many other bulbs, they can be dug and divided just about any time.

Oxblood bulbs have a dark black skin that makes them fairly easy to identify.  The bulbs prefer full sun but can tolerate light shade.  In fact, most of the ones I see are massed around the trunks of old live oaks.  Oxbloods do best in rich, well drained soil but they will grow in just about anything.  Plant your mature bulbs about three inches deep with the neck slightly exposed.   Medium and smaller bulbs can be planted at little more shallow.  Once planted, water regularly for the first year.  Once established, they will survive (and even thrive) on normal rainfall.

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