Flowers of the West Wind: Rain Lilies
by Bobby J. Ward
Each spring when I visit the northeastern coastal plain of North Carolina, I look forward to the few roadside spots where I have become accustomed to seeing atamasco lilies in ditch banks and along low moist areas. I can always count on the lilies being present if there has been no mowing by state highway department personnel or by area farmers. Known to the locals as the Easter lily, the atamasco may offer its milk-white flowers at Eastertide, particularly in those years when the spring full moon dictates a late Easter.
To the botanist the atamasco is Zephyranthes atamasca (Amaryllidaceae), and it is one of 40-some species of zephyranthes and about 20 species of habranthus that horticulturalists and gardeners collectively call rain lilies. Zephyranthes range in the United States from Virginia (Z. atamasca) southward into Mexico and westward into Kansas (Z. chlorosolen), the Caribbean, parts of Central America, Colombia, and Argentina. They are closely akin to habranthus, which are native to temperate areas of Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay.
Unlike the vernal blooming atamasco and its close siblings in Florida, Zephyranthes simpsonii and Z. treatiae, most rain lilies in Southern gardens bloom in the summer and early fall. They respond with flushes of blossoms that often repeat after successive storms and tropical hurricanes.
Though commonly known as rain lilies, zephyranthes and habranthus are members of the Amaryllidaceae, making them more closely allied to narcissus, crinum, and snowdrops than to the true lilies (Liliaceae) such as agapanthus, allium, and lilium. Both genera have winsome and rather poetic names: zephyranthes, meaning “flower of the west wind” (a reference to the origin of the genus in the Western Hemisphere) and habranthus, “delicate flower.” Some consider rain lilies to be the New World botanical analog of the Old World narcissus (daffodils). One species, Zephyranthes candida, native to the marshes of the R’o de la Plata on the border between Argentina and Uruguay, legendarily played a role in the naming of the river itself. Sebastian Cabot, an Italian cosmographer sailing under the flag of Spain in 1530, mistakenly thought that the glimmering sheen of small white flowers of Z. candida he saw from the distance on the river banks were actually silver deposits, giving the river the name which translates from Spanish as “river of silver.” Other monikers applied to the rain lilies are fairy lilies because of their diminutive stature and ephemeral nature; and storm lilies because they appear to be persuaded to bloom as much by cyclonic changes in barometric pressures as by rainfall itself.
Most species of zephyranthes grow well in full sun in well drained soil with a good application of organic material or a slow-release fertilizer. Some naturalize easily and most tolerate drought. Generally rain lilies are easy from seed; almost all will germinate in a few days after sowing. Divisions can be taken from the parent bulb of some species. I grow many of my rain lilies in pots where they are able to receive only a few hours per day of direct sun in the summer (though they would like more sun) and then I relocate them to a protected south-facing side of the house in the winter if I am unsure of their tenderness. As I acquired various species and cultivars of rain lilies, I frequently and wrong-headedly provided extra water to parched pots of baked rain lilies as I watered other nearby perennials, failing to realize that they would flower far better if I let natural rainfall trigger the bloom. Texas writer and southern bulb expert Scott Ogden says that rain lilies are not fooled by a mere garden hose.
Habranthus are considered by some to be less hardy than zephyranthes, suggesting they do best at USDA Zone 8 and higher. However, one gardener I know in eastern North Carolina successfully grows a dozen or so forms of habranthus giving them well-drained soils, at least a half day of sun, medium rate of balanced fertilizer (time released), and notes that pot-bound forms bloom more profusely. He has found some to be hardy to 0 F, thereby belying what learned horticultural references dictate. Like zephyranthes, habranthus grow easily from fresh seed. They grow from 6‐12” tall, are generally scant of foliage, and blooms come in shades of orange, pink, yellow; there are even white ones.
Habranthus robustus is popularly cultivated in the South, yielding lavender-pink flowers all summer long. ‘Russell Manning’ is one of its forms growing to 12”. H. brachyandrus is favored by those who admire its rather large pink-to-burgundy flowers, which may reach nearly four inches in diameter. One American species native to Texas and parts of Louisiana is H. tubispathus (with an allied disjunct population in Brazil and Argentina). It has lovely blossoms of bronze-orange on the outside and yellow on the inside of the petals. The Texas-Louisiana form (var. texensis) is referred to colloquially as copper lilies. Habranthus gracilifolius attracts rain lily devotees because of its small pinkish flowers and thread-like foliage that gracefully nods (hence the specific epithet gracilifolius).
One of the hardiest of the rain lilies is Zephyranthes candida which I grow in a bed of clay soil and only a few hours of sun. Still it prolifically rewards me late in the summer and early fall with clean white clusters of blooms that remain closed on cloudy days; it sports strong foliage that is somewhat evergreen. It is easy to grow and has become so widely naturalized in some areas of the South that some folks assume it is a native plant. For the garden enthusiast, rain lilies are ideal if planted near the front of a border where they won’t be overplanted or lost, perhaps backed with greenery. I grow Zephyranthes candida amid a well-controlled ivy, Hedera algeriensis ‘Gloire de Marengo’, where the rain lily flowers complement the distinctive variegated leaves of the ivy.
The most widely grown rain lily is likely Z. grandiflora, a species probably originating in Mexico; it was known and cultivated by the Aztecs. Certainly, as its specific epithet suggests (grandiflora means “large flower”), it is one of the prettiest with exaggerated, funnel-shaped, rose-pink blossoms with a whitish throat. Generations of gardeners in the South have admired its opulence and for many it reigns as the “Queen of Rain Lilies.” Unfortunately it is often sold mislabeled as Z. robustus, an invalid name for Habranthus robustus; or as Z. rosea, a smaller and less hardy species from Cuba.
The first species of rain lily that I grew was Z. citrina with petals a shockingly brilliant cadmium yellow. It was given to me by a friend and it produced such copious amounts of flat, paper-like, black seeds the first season, that I soon was mailing them to friends in England. One old cultivar, ‘Ajax’, a presumed hybrid between Z. citrina and Z. candida, has lovely pale yellow flowers. It was grown by Elizabeth Lawrence at her garden in Charlotte, where colonies of it are still maintained by the present owner of the house and garden.
There are many other rain lilies to consider growing. Zephyranthes flavissima, from South America, has golden yellow flowers and tolerates wet areas and frost. The prairie lily has had numerous name changes, but now taxonomists have settled on Z. drummondii. It opens its white, fragrant flowers in the afternoon and night, which give the appearance of a ghost of white crocuses frosting the landscape. The prairie lily grows naturally in limey desert-type soils in rugged, scrubby areas of Texas and Mexico; it is equally happy in average garden soils, provided they are well drained. Z. chlorosolen is a creamy white-flowered rain lily that blooms in the evening. Zephyranthes reginae, the queen’s rain lily, is native to Mexico and is an eye-pleasing soft yellow. It was distributed formerly as the “Valles Yellow” rain lily.
Over the last 15 years or so, John Fairey and Carl Schoenfeld of Peckerwood Gardens and Yucca Do Nursery in Hempstead, Texas, have made at least 85 trips to Mexico collecting seeds and promoting Mexican flora. Among the growing list of plants they have introduced is a Zephyranthes “Labuffarosea,” which they found in 1990 in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, giving it the name which translates as “the pink rain lily from La Buffa.” Schoenfeld describes its blossom as a show stopper with its many color variations from white to deep pink.
Fairey grows Z. morrisclintii, a pink flowering rain lily, which blooms as early as March in Peckerwood’s dry woodland garden. Other plantings at Peckerwood include Z. macrosiphon with deep-pink flowers; Zephyranthes ‘Prairie Sunset’ (sometimes erroneously sold by nurseries as ‘Capricorn’, a distinctive form and rare cultivar); Zephyranthes “Queretaro Yellow,” a small bright yellow rain lily that blooms all summer long; and numerous additional forms Fairey and Schoenfeld have collected whose taxonomy has not yet been sorted out properly. Some of this latter group are referred to as the “lindleyana complex,” since they at least superficially resemble Z. lindleyana, but vary considerably in size, shape, and color of the flower. Among the habranthus that Fairey grows is Habranthus howardii, a superb plant that never fails to provide powder-yellow flowers.
Gardeners outside the South are discovering rain lilies and it is clear that their culture can be extended into cooler areas, perhaps cooler than Zone 7, regardless of what the textbooks say. Hopefully through the efforts of plant hunters like Fairey, Schoenfeld, and others, more frost-tolerant forms will be found and/or crosses made that will provided still hardier forms for our gardens.
[Bobby J. Ward gardens and writes in Raleigh, N.C. He is the author of A Contemplation Upon Flowers‐Garden Plants in Myth and Literature (Timber Press 1999). He is also the co-editor of A Garden of One’s Own, the writings of Elizabeth Lawrence (UNC Press 1997).
Sources of Rain Lilies
Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, 7463 Heath Trail, Gloucester, VA 23061. Catalog free.
North American Rock Garden Society (seeds for members only), P.O. Box 67, Millwood, NY 10546. Membership $25/year.
Plant Delights Nursery, 9241 Sauls Road, Raleigh, NC 27603. Catalog price, 10-first class stamps, or a box of chocolates.
We-Du Nurseries, Route 5, Box 724, Marion, NC 28752. Catalog price $2.
Woodlanders, 1128 Colleton Ave., Aiken, SC 29801. Catalog price $2.
Yucca Do Nursery, Rt. 3, Box 104, Hempstead, TX 77445. Catalog price $2.