Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Ode to the Oxblood

A clump of oxblood lilies (Rhodophiala bifida) growing on the shady side of the house

It's in the upper seventies, there's a very nice breeze, and the sky is blue--it's glorious weather. So I'm blogging from the front porch again. Still more oxblood lilies have popped up since yesterday, looking ever so lovely.

So let's ponder the oxblood.

The Oxblood in Context
Oxblood lilies look rather like slimmed down "Dutch" (South American) amaryllis because they are all members of the same family, the amaryllidaceae. So, like many other amaryllids, they are bulbs and they have six-petaled trumpet-shaped flowers and long, strap-like leaves. They also closely resemble the true (South African) amaryllis, Amaryllis belladonna, which, like the oxblood, blooms before its leaves emerge. Belladonna lilies, however, are pink, and have thicker stems and slightly larger flowers.

They're also a bit like some Cyrtanthus, an extremely varied South African genus that's not terribly common here in the US.

And they're probably most frequently confused with red spider lilies, Lycoris radiata. From a distance, they're both leafless, red, slim-petaled, and about the same height. However, spider lilies have thinner petals with wavy margins and, most importantly, long, spidery (hence the name) stamens that extend well beyond the flower and curl upwards.

The Oxblood in the Landscape
Oxblood lilies are members of the American genus Rhodophiala. Here in the US, we grow Rhodophiala bifida, but in Mexico and South America they have a treasure trove of different species. My favorite pictures of exotic Rhodophiala are by a guy named Hüdepohl. For example, see the golden Rhodophiala bagnoldii in a rather breathtaking desert landscape. Check out his unnamed pink amaryllid in a field of what appear to be bright indigo morning glory flowers. And I particularly love the Rhodophiala phycelloides, bright red on a vivid blue background. The dude knows how to take pictures.

Our little O. bifida looks comparatively modest, but it has its own virtues. In the old days (which old days? I don't know--those old ones) people planted oxblood lilies along their foundations, along sidewalks, and along fences and property lines. So rugged are they, that they will survive indefinitely on old abandoned homesteads, outlining buildings that have long since disappeared. (While I'm not sure that it's the best use of these plants, in Texas, oxblood lilies have a very linear identity. Our ninety-year-old neighbor, for example, has a big, fat double row of oxbloods along his fence line.)

I think clumping them near the front of a bed for little exclamation points of seasonal color is probably a better way to incorporate them into your landscape. We're puddling ours around a wee little bur oak, so hopefully we'll have a big pool of crimson some day. Admittedly, we're not there yet.

The beginnings of our colony of oxblood lilies

Oxbloods can take full sun, they (obviously) withstand drought, and they can handle at least some shade. Their bloom is brief, like most flower bulbs, but they're very dependable. And that deep crimson is so punchy.
Oxblood buds by the shade patio

Distinctive Features
Oxblood bulbs easy to recognize because they are sheathed in distinctive shiny, black, papery coverings ("tunics").

If I'm not mistaken, they've got something called "retractile roots," which are roots that first grow deep into the soil, then telescope in on themselves, pulling the bulb in after them. This is why you must be prepared to dig very, very deep if you plan to transplant a clump.

If you want oxbloods, though (and of course you do; who wouldn't?), transplanting is the way to go. They are only intermittently and unpredictably available in the nursery industry, and you often pay through the nose for the priviledge--rather like that other garden exellency, the crinum lily. The Antique Rose Emporium sometimes has them, and so, I believe, does the Southern Bulb Company, which uses a picture of oxblood bulbs for the rather stylish banner of their blog. We got lucky--our old farmhouse came well-stocked with venerable old plantings of the lovely things.

Closeup of an oxblood lily

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