Genealogy of My Surprise Lilies, Second Edition

Bill Devlin
Adams County Master Gardener

Master Gardeners author an article weekly, 52 weeks a year, over the 7 years I've been a Master Gardener, that's 364 articles. Pretty soon, it's hard to find a new topic, so I have chosen to update and retread some of the better ones. The article receiving the most responses is this one, Genealogy of My Surprise Lilies. I have received over 30 emails, over the years. Perhaps this is because I offered 3 bulbs to whoever wanted them. Since I am repeating the article, it is only fair that I repeat the bulb offer. If you want 3 of these bulbs, email me at, and I will see what I can do, on a first come first served basis. As you read this, I am vacationing in Kansas at my farm, getting ready to dig some more and bring them back. I will probably ask you to pick them up at the Ag Center, 670 Old Harrisburg Road, but if this is impractical, let's see what we can work out.

I have also added a picture of the first day of spring appearance of the lilies making their early debut in the leaf stage, in addition to their bloom stage in August. So without further ado, here's the article.

People have Genealogies, why not plants, particularly those grown from bulbs? I ask this question since I have some surprise lilies, a.k.a., magic lily, resurrection lily, naked lily, that I consider members of my family. For the horticultural purest, these plants are Lycoris squamigera.

Let me explain my self, and my genealogy. In 1946 my family moved to a rented house in Columbus, Kansas, directly across from the City Park and swimming pool. This was the best house I had ever lived in up to that time. A wealthy couple next door owned it. He was the patent holder of the signa-lume sign, a reflective sign whereby each letter in the sign was made up of a number of small mirrors. They were the state of the art sign through out the Midwest before reflective paint was invented. When I say they were wealthy, I mean they each had their own car, a rarity in 1946. Even more of rarity when you consider that they were matching maroon 1940 Lincoln Continental Coupes. What I wouldn't give to have bought those cars when they were traded in. But I digress. That sets the stage for their quality of landscaping.

I was absolutely amazed one August day to see a series of pink spikes erupt from the ground near the house, and more amazed when a couple of hours later they were no longer a couple of inches long, but more like a foot and a half. Within a couple of days, each spike was adorned with beautiful pink flowers. That was all there was. No leaves, only the spikes, then the flowers, and in the 'dog days' of August when scarcely a drop of rain was to be had.

The next spring, I noticed that in addition to the daffodils that put forth first their green leaves then their flowers, a wide leafed plant of similar color but wider leaves was coming up near where I had seen the 'surprise lilies'. After the daffodils had faded so did the surprise lily foliage. By June, neither was but a memory. Then in mid-August, surprise - surprise, my pink friends reappeared.

My idyllic life next to the park and its swimming pool ended some 30 months after our arrival when we moved to a 120 acre farm 18 miles southwest of Columbus, due to my father's health. Knowing where the surprise lilies grew, we dug them up. I found the bulbs to have multiplied, separated them, replanted half and planted the other half on our new farm. Two years later we had a flood of biblical proportion from the nearby Neosho River (one day it was a mile and half away, the next it was 3" deep over our floors). We returned to Columbus my father's health having improved. Remembering our bulbs, we dug them up and replanted them at my grandfather's house in Scammon, Kansas, its now 1948 and I am entering high school. From there I went to the Coast Guard Academy and on to a variety of stations literally all over the country.

Meanwhile, my parents bought a farm out side Parsons, Kansas in 1960. It had a house that miraculously survived a tornado that took out a steel grain bin 50 yards SE and a wooden barn 50 yards NW, but remained standing. Taking that as an omen of some permanence, they took their insurance proceeds fixed up the house with new windows and siding and retired. They collected the now much-multiplied bulbs from grandpas and planted them on the farm. The bulbs have now been in the family over a dozen years, now at their fourth location.

Another generation has passed, and we find ourselves in Adams County, Pennsylvania. Its really a small world since my grandfather, also a William Devlin passed through here in 1882 after arriving as a small boy in Philadelphia, before there was an Ellis Island.

After I arrived here in 1994, guess what I did when I visited the farm that I inherited from my deceased parents? If you guessed that I brought back some bulbs from the farm, you got it right! Since my parents departed on 1973 and 1977 respectively, and I harvested the bulbs in 1994, and can be separated every 3 to 5 years, we really have a bunch.

I took my son on a pecan grove improvement trip a couple of years ago, and we now have a bounteous crop in Myersville, Maryland as well.

The literature indicates the species originally came from the Far East, China and Japan, so it's not too surprising that they can get around here. Sixty years in the family, spanning my grandfather, father, I, and my son, this counts as a genealogy in my book.

Read other articles on care of house plants

Read other articles By Bill Devlin