Monday, September 27, 2010

Lycoris - Speaking of Naked Ladies

Plants in the genus Lycoris (pronounced LY-kor-iss or ly-KOR-iss) are sometimes called Naked Ladies.  The name refers to the fact that the blooms appear in the fall not clothed in foliage.   There are, in fact, several plants that share that name.   So, as I mentioned in my blog article on Colchicum, to walk into your local garden center and ask for Naked Ladies may not only cause some confusion, but might get you in trouble.

Apparently for the same reason that Lycoris are called Naked Ladies, the genus is also named for a notorious Roman actress and mime.  Mime was very popular with the ruling classes of 1st century Rome, as were illicit affairs.  Some said she was a common prostitute, perhaps because she had once been a slave, or they were jealous.  Lycoris was her "art" name.  She was also known as Cytheris.  She must have been a delightful beauty, talented and discrete for her paramours included such notables as Publius Volumnius, Mark Antony and Cornelius Gallus.  It was Gallus, the poet, who immortalized her in verse, even after she dumped him.

It was not Gallus who wrote the sad lyrics,

Don't speak
I know just what you're saying
So please stop explaining
Don't tell me cause it hurts
Don't speak
I know what you're thinking
I don't need your reasons
Don't tell me cause it hurts

Volumnius, who appeared in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, was not given volumes to speak, either; just three lines.  It was Mark Antony who wanted everyone to lend him their ears while he did the talking.

The genus consists of a dozen or more species native from Iran to Japan and southeast Asia.  Plants are dormant during summer.  Flowering is during fall, and colors range from white to pink, red, yellow and orange.  Lycoris are effective in container gardens, bulb gardens and borders.  They are also superb for naturalizing.  Lycoris are very easy to care for.  In fact, they often pop up in lawns and around old farmsteads where they have received no attention for years.  As with all bulbs, allow the leaves to turn brown before removing them.  Early removal prevents the bulbs from storing reserves for the following year.

Plant hardiness differs according to species, but generally hardy from USDA climate zones 7 to 10, requiring full sun to partial shade and well-drained soil, preferably high in organic matter.  Recommended pH is from 6.1 to 7.5.

Before planting, take a sample of your garden soil to your local Cooperative Extension Service office.  For a nominal fee, they will send it to a lab for analysis and return a report to you.

Unless you are naturalizing them in the lawn, prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 8" deep, removing all traces of weeds. Common soil amendments include sulfur for lowering pH, limestone for raising pH, sand for helping drainage, clay for slowing drainage, gypsum for breaking up caking clay and compost for enriching the soil.  Bone meal is especially good for bulbs.  Which you should use depends upon the recommendations of the lab analysis based upon your particular circumstance.

Your soil sample report will also include fertilizer recommendations.  A good all-around practice is to mix 5 tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer and 2 cups of bone meal per ten square feet area of bulb garden.  Be careful that fertilizer does not come into direct contact with plant tissue.

Plant lycoris bulbs 5 to 6 inches deep and 6 to 12 inches apart in the fall.  Depth is measured to the bottom of the hole.  Unless snow or rainfall is inadequate, irrigation should not be necessary.  Slightly moist, well-drained soil is preferred, though summer drought during the dormant period is okay.

Lycoris radiata is the source of the toxic drug, lycorine, which has been used in Chinese medicine as an expectorant (makes one cough up mucus) and emetic (makes one vomit).  It's no wonder because the body doesn't want it in there.  So, it must be noted that all parts of the plant are toxic when ingested.

It's fascinating to grow a plant that brings to mind such colorful characters.  With a couple dozen lycoris bulbs hidden in your garden, history, legend and art will spring up and delight you every autumn.

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