By Matt Gibson and Erin Marissa Russell
If you are looking for a tropical flower to add a burst of exotic color and style to your flower garden, and you live in a warm climate area, you might want to try growing oxblood lily flowers. Oxblood lilies are also known as schoolhouse lilies, because of their blooming time, which coincides with schools starting back up in the fall, or hurricane lilies, as their blooms also line up with storm season in the Southern United States.
Though less common in the north, oxblood lilies are actually remarkably cold hardy plants that can withstand icy temperatures as low as 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Oxbloods are generally hardy to zones eight through eleven, but Northern gardeners down as low as zone seven can also grow oxblood lilies in a sheltered location, or in extremely cold climates, oxblood lilies can be grown indoors as houseplants.
Native to Argentina and Uruguay, the oxblood flower is cultivated for its eye-catching blooms. The gorgeous flowers are deep blood red and have the ability to stand out in a crowd, even amongst an array of other bright colors. Oxblood lilies, or Rhodophiala, bloom throughout autumn and go dormant in the summer. The blooms are shaped like the amaryllis flower, with which they share the same plant family. Each individual bloom is only open for two to three days, but each clump will continue to produce new blooms for around one month.
Though care for Rhodophiala is relatively specific, the flower is very hardy and adapts well to various soil conditions. First introduced in Texas around the early 1800’s by Peter Henry Oberwetter, a German immigrant and botanist that settled in the Texas Hill Country just before the Civil War. Today, the oxblood lily is a rarity in nurseries and garden centers, and is primarily passed around between gardeners and friends to add a brilliant red intensity to autumn landscapes.
Oxblood lilies are mostly confined to the meadows of East Texas, and the South Texas Hill Country, near where Mr. Oberwetter grew his nursery beds, but there have been sightings of oxbloods as far west as California, and as far east as Florida. No matter where they are grown, the exotic red blooms are a magnet for hummingbirds and other pollinators.
Varieties of Oxblood Lilies
Though there are just under 30 species of Rhodophiala growing in Uruguay and Argentina, as well as Chile, and southern Brazil. Some species grow from fall to spring and go dormant in the Summer, while others grow from spring to autumn and require a full winter dormancy. Flowers appear just after dormancy periods in either the fall or spring.
Only the R. bifida cultivar has been naturalized in North America, as it is the hardiest, most heat-tolerant, and easiest to grow. The bifida, or oxblood species also does not require a dry dormancy and needs a little bit of rainfall all year long. In zone seven and up, the R. bifida cultivar thrives in any soil type. There are three cultivars under the R. bifida umbrella one is a pink variety called R. bifida var. Spathacea. There is also an orange-red variety called, R.bifida var. Grandiflora. However, the red variety, R. bifida var. vermillion is the most vigorous, and the most common. Rhodophiala is a member of the amaryllis plant family.
Growing Conditions for Oxblood Lilies
Oxblood lilies grow well in full sun and partial shade locations. Pick a spot that gets an average of six to eight hours of sunlight per day. Flowerheads will survive longer with a little bit of afternoon shade during the hottest time of day. Oxblood lilies are incredibly hardy plants that are adaptable to a wide range of soil mediums. They even grow well in heavy clay soils, as long as they are well-draining. Boggy soil types will quickly kill oxbloods. They will adapt to any pH range from heavily alkaline to heavily acidic soil types. Oxblood lilies are heat tolerant and relatively drought tolerant except for during the spring, in which they require consistent rain in order to form both leaves and flowers.
How to Plant Oxblood Lilies
Plant your oxblood lilies in the spring after leaves have died back. Alternatively, bulbs can be planted in the late summer to early autumn. Sow bulbs three to four inches deep placing them in the ground so that the neck faces upwards. Space bulbs at least eight inches apart from each other and other neighboring plants. Bulbs are planted deeply in the soil and may even travel deeper on their own to help protect themselves during dormancy. Though the bulbs are leafless during the summer months, they are not truly dormant, as the root system stays active all year long.
Care for Oxblood Lilies
Although well established oxblood lilies are extremely hardy plants that are tolerant of dry weather, in the first year of growth, they do require consistent watering from the gardener. To facilitate blooming, you can also provide the flowers with a treatment of 5-5-10 fertilizer in the summertime. Follow the instructions in the next section under “How to Propagate Oxblood Lilies” to divide your bulbs every few years, or they will stop blooming.
How to Propagate Oxblood Lilies
There are three ways to propagate oxblood lilies: by division or from seed, direct sowing either as soon as you can work the garden in spring or after the last frost of the fall. Be advised that sowing seeds is not especially reliable, so it’s not recommended. Most gardeners have much greater success when they grow these lilies from bulbs.
To divide oxblood lilies, you can either divide the rhizomes, the tubers, the corbs, or bulbs (including any offsets). Division can be performed at any time of year, but if you’d like to avoid interfering with the blooming cycle of your lilies, time your division so you’ll be transplanting them in early summer or late in the springtime, just as foliage begins to die back.
It is not required to divide lilies that are still blooming well, as you can leave them in place without division for several years, and they will continue to bloom happily in clumps. If you notice your lilies are failing to bloom, however, division may be just what they need.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Oxblood Lilies
Gardeners who grow oxblood lilies should be aware of the following pests and diseases so they can monitor their plants for symptoms. The sooner you notice an infection or infestation is occuring, the easier the issue will be to treat since it will not have had time to spread very much. Scale and spider mites are more likely to inhabit lilies that are kept indoors, as the drier conditions are a better habitat for these insects. Outdoors, they do not usually have problems with pests or disease at all.
Root Rot: You can prevent root rot from taking hold in your lilies by being careful not to overwater them. If an issue persists, check to make sure the soil has sufficient drainage and that the spot where they are planted gets sufficient air circulation. The symptoms of root rot begin underground, so the disease sometimes goes unnoticed for a while. The roots will change texture and color, developing soggy areas that are dark instead of the pale shade of healthy roots. If root rot is allowed to progress, plants will eventually begin showing signs of damage above ground, such as wilting or stunted growth.
You can pull up a plant that you suspect has root rot and examine the root system. If you see symptoms of root rot, use clean, sterilized shears to snip away the discolored sections of the root system that are affected by the disease. If the roots are still waterlogged, you can lay the plant out in the sun or on newspapers to allow the roots to dry out before you put the plant back into the ground. For more information, read our article How to Fight Stem and Root Rot.
Scale: Scale insects only grow to be half an inch long, and they come in shades of green, brown, gray, and black. These insects have armored shells, so an infested plant may appear to simply have bumps along the stems or branches. Sometimes, scales will emit a clear, sticky substance that remains on the surface of plants called honeydew. This substance attracts ants, and noticing it on a plant can help to diagnose the presence of scale.
If there are only a few insects on your plants, you can remove them by scraping them off with a twig, scrub brush, or gardening tool. (Make sure to use a clean, sterile tool or a twig that does not have signs of infestation or disease.) You may choose to make the task shorter by simply snipping off the parts of the plant that are affected instead of scraping off the scale insects when infestation is not too severe.
When infestations are light, you can also make a homemade neem oil spray to lessen the amount the scale insects feed on plants and stop new insects from moving in. Mix a liter of warm water with four or five drops of dish soap and a teaspoon of neem oil, then apply to plants about twice per week.
You can also use predatory insects such as ladybugs, lace wings, or parasitic wasps, which will prey on the scale insects (or, in the case of the wasps, cause the scale insects’ death by laying eggs inside their bodies). Severe infestation cases can be treated with horticultural oil. For more information, read our article How to Control Scale Insects.
Spider Mites: Spider mites are technically spiders, not mites, and are as tiny as the period at the end of a sentence. They are extremely tiny and tend to spread and multiply very quickly, not to mention being able to kill a plant. Plants that spider mites are feeding on will exhibit spots or stripes on their leaves in shades of yellow, tan, or white. If left unchecked, a spider mite infestation can cause leaves to change color entirely, shrink, or drop from the plant. The tiny white and red spots that move are the spider mites themselves. You’ll also see cottony webbing appear on the underside of plant foliage when an infestation is in progress.
Quarantine plants with signs of spider mite damage as soon as you notice it, because they use their webbing to travel in the wind from plant to plant, so they can go long distances in quite a short time. Remove this webbing if you see it, not only to deter the spread of spider mites but also so that the treatments explained below can reach the insects.
If you catch the invasion early enough, you can treat spider mites with targeted jets of water from the garden hose. Do be aware that you will need to repeat the treatment several times in order for it to be effective, and it only really works on light infestations. More serious cases can be treated by releasing parasitic mites or ladybugs, which you can purchase online or at many nurseries and garden centers. You can also use horticultural oil or the homemade neem oil spray recommended in the scale insect section to fight spider mites. To make it, simply combine a liter of warm water with four or five drops of dish soap and a teaspoon of neem oil. For more information, read our article How to Fight Spider Mites.
It can be difficult for some gardeners to match oxblood lilies with other flowers in the garden because the burgundy background combined with the pink and white contrasting stripe makes both pink and red a little too much of the same thing. While pairing these blossoms with a background of white provides high contrast, it may be a bit too striking for some tastes. Some gardeners recommend partnering oxblood lilies with dark green or paler chartreuse shades in the garden, and yellow flowers will match well with the interior anthers of the lilies. Keep in mind when you’re planning a flower garden that oxblood lilies don’t bloom until September, when many of the blossoms surrounding it will already be spent for the season.
Toxicity Warning! Oxblood lilies can be toxic to small pets, as well as humans if ingested. All parts of the plant are toxic, and can cause digestive unrest. Smaller pets, such as small cats and dogs, may experience more severe stomach pains than larger pets or humans, but ingestion is not life-threatening. Still, take care to grow oxblood lilies in locations that are out of reach of small children, and in places where your pets are not likely to travel.