100-Year-Old Rain Lilies “Thrive on Neglect” in Zone-4 Wisconsin
by Julie Monroe, Janesville, Wisconsin

(Julie told me about her family-heirloom rain lilies at one of my lectures and later emailed me the following story. Thanks, Julie! Note that she calls them “fairy lilies,” another common name for Zephyranthes.)

My pink fairy lilies thrive on neglect! The only thing I am careful about is to take them inside before the first freeze. My husband and I have dressed for bed more than once and have had to go outside to retrieve those 100-year-old fairy lilies if the weather prediction is frost!

Originally, my bulbs came from my great-aunt, Irene Henning Buser, who lived in Madison, Wisconsin. She was born in 1884 and lived to be in her 90s. My mother, Dorothy Henning Horgen, is still alive and believes they came from her grandmother, Irene’s mother. Irene had a very small lot on the westside of Madison. She had numerous flowers and bulbs, and tons of fairy lilies. I think she had the first American English-style garden! She displayed them all around her garden, house, and even on tree stumps. She kept the fairy lilies in every conceivable container, from wooden cheese boxes to graniteware pots. Irene divided them and passed them on to friends and relatives.

In the early 1950’s, Irene gave my mother about five containers. When I was married in 1974, my mother gave me a few containers. After Irene died, I inherited some more.

My fairy lilies are still going strong. In the almost 30 years I’ve had them, I’ve only split them twice. I split them once because an antique-collecting friend asked me why I had such a valuable graniteware pot in the backyard. She was afraid someone would steal it. I’d had it out there for about 15 years and never thought of the pot as valuable! I washed the cobalt blue swirled pot and it is now in my kitchen. The fairy lilies looked great against the bright blue and white. I transferred them into ordinary clay pots, unglazed, put in a few stones for drainage, and had my kids sponge paint whatever colors they wanted onto the outsides. I also have my great-grandmother’s old metal roaster full of fairy lilies.

Each time I’ve repotted, they are very crowded. The soil I used was part potting soil for inside plants, but mostly garden soil. Our soil is very nice here, not clay or sandy. Very black. I’ve only fertilized them once, with Miracle Gro. It didn’t seem to do anything. They aren’t planted deep, just under the soil.

I’ve never planted them in the garden. It would be a lot of work to dig them in the fall. It’s so easy to just put them out in the spring after the threat of frost and just take them to the cellar again in the late fall. We live in a circa 1860 Gothic Revival house. Our basement is a true cellar, only under about half of the house, and some of it is dirt floor. It is definitely colder than modern day basements. My mom and great aunt had modern basements, though, and experienced the same type of robust blooms that I get.

When I take them in at falltime, there will be lots of strappy leaves. My cats will eat them if they get down in the cellar! No problems. When the soil dries out they look like a bunch of dead plants.

I had a water leak in the cellar once. (You can guess I avoid the cellar whenever possible.) When I went downstairs and discovered the drip, right underneath it was a blooming pot of fairy lilies! A nice surprise in February. It’s awful dark in that cellar, too. That blooming group did not see the outside light until May. It was just fine.

The bulbs like the sun and seem to flower more after a good rain. They prefer the rain to the hose. At least I notice the blooms more frequently after a good rain. I water them as I water my perennials. I do not let them completely dry out.

Only rarely (about five times in my 30 years) have they had just one or two blooms open. Usually the whole pot will be in bloom at once. They remain in bloom for a good five days. Everyone admires them; people have even walked up my sidewalks to get a look! For a small bulb, they are showy.

(Inspired? You can order your own rain lilies here.)