Naked ladies, or surprise lilies, trumpet their pink splendor in mid- to late summer. These beautiful ladies are part of our foreign diversity in Eureka Springs and eastern North America, but alas they are just Asian flowers. Known as surprise lily, resurrection lily, magic lily or naked ladies, this pretender is laid bare not as a lily at all, but a member of the Amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae).
The late blooming beauties produce unnoticed strap-like leaves in the spring, which soon die back hiding the late summer surprise. Out of the bosom of steamy August air, like magic a whorl of large showy flowers atop a leafless (naked) stalk resurrects itself from the ground.
Native to East Asia, and long-planted as a cemetery adornment in both China and Japan, it is truly an heirloom Victorian perennial flower. The Chinese names for this tempting poisonous plant translate to stag’s garlic and summer narcissus. Upon returning from Yokohama, Japan, in 1862, living plants were introduced to America by Dr. George Rogers Hall (1820-1899) of Bristol, Rhode Island. Leaving medicine to enter the export business, Hall’s botanical legacy outshined his medical career. He was the first American to send live plants directly from Japan to New England including Japanese yews, Japanese dogwoods, and our vigorous prolific weed once known as Hall’s Honeysuckle – the invasive Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica).
Naked ladies were introduced into the horticultural trade as “Amaryllis hallii,” a fanciful name of no botanical standing, and distributed to the nursery trade by the Boston seedsman, Charles Mason Hovey. By the late 1800s, having proven itself hardy in New England, the bulbs were widely distributed in the American nursery trade.
Our common naked ladies are the Asian species Lycoris squamigera, an inelegant scientific name for an elegant plant. It superficially resembles the South African Amaryllis belladonna but differs in significant botanical characteristics as well as continent of origin.
The first European illustration comes from a periodical famous for its unabashed Victorian paintings of reproductive organs (of plants) – Curtis’s Botanical Magazine Vol. 123, August 1, 1897. This periodical has been continuously published in one form or another since 1787.