|Zephyranthes candida, courtesy of Teresa Watkins|
|Yellow rain lily (Zephyranthes citrinus)|
But I think that in order to 'get' rain lilies, you have to be an optimist who can visualize their beauty in the future. In Passalong Plants, Felder Rushing reminisces about pilfering rain lily bulbs from an abandoned property and getting away with it thanks to their lackluster wispy dormant foliage. I'm not sure that the authorities really care about the dormancy of the plants you're digging when they're giving you a shiny new pair of handcuffs for trespassing, so I would recommend seeking permission if you plan on any collecting trips of your own.
Even in season, rain lilies are always much more spectacular in the shadow of more impressive plants and peppered between groundcovers or perennials. The plants that I purchased myself were either dry bulbs or pots of floppy skinny leaves, like a bad combover of stringy hair on an ugly bald patch of soil.
But maybe it's for the best that rain lilies remain invisible as passalongs, spreading as bulbs passed between friends and exhumed from old estates like cookies from a cookie jar. It's more fun that way, and since the human element is so essential to their existence, they tell so many more stories that way.
|This one almost always has eight tepals, meaning four petals and four sepals.|
|Yellow rain lilies blooming outside my door|
It isn't difficult to see how one can attach a deep emotional or spiritual significance to these humble messengers of the garden, and it seems that everyone has a tale to tell. For example, a good friend of mine has fond memories of playing in a field of atamasco lilies as a little girl, and I get to watch that very same field bloom every spring. My friend Teresa Watkins planted them in her landscape design for severely wounded warriors so that they'll spring up as a wonderful surprise. These plants are ideal as humble and unassuming gifts that keep on giving.
Helen Yoest first became interested in them when she learned of the Southern Garden History Society's ceremony to honor Elizabeth Lawrence, the first female landscape architect on North Carolina. Helen recalls: "Members made a pilgrimage to Lawrence's unadorned grave in a colonial churchyard outside Annapolis where they planted white rain lilies donated by Old House Gardens - Heirloom Bulbs."
|Photo courtesy of Helen Yoest|
|Photo courtesy of Jenks Farmer|
I'm sure I'll make a lot of people angry with this statement, but here goes. There are a lot of black-and-white views about how we should replace the exotic plants in our gardens with natives, but I feel that the bulbs and heirloom perennials planted decades and centuries ago constitute a gray area in the debate. I'm all for planting as many natives as possible, but how could we possibly deny the value of these historical treasures and the stories that they tell to our distracted generation?
Those old and forgotten plants sitting on rural homesteads and historic neighborhoods are every bit as American as you - descended from the hopeful immigrants that built our nation. We can't go back to the way things were before our great-grandparents set our existence and our sprawl in motion, so why not treasure the plants that they grew as if they were a living representation of our past? If that old milk and wine lily has made it this far without destroying the ecosystem, then we shouldn't credit it and other non-invasive plants for the strip malls and suburbs that have transformed our landscape. Old passalong plants deserve a spot in our garden if only for surviving as long as they have - all while disrupting the ecosystem less in their lifetimes than we humans do in a single day.
|Rain lilies look beautiful even as they fade.|
|Rain lilies in in a container, courtesy of Teresa Watkins.|
|Pink rain lilies change color throughout the course of a day. The two photos above are from the same plant.|
"Just because they aren't sold by the kazillions, they're unfairly lumped into the category of 'minor bulbs'... Each unexpected flower brings a smile. And there's nothing minor about that."