Specimen Spotlight: Late Bloomers that are Right on Time

By Melinda Heigel, EMGV

Fall has arrived to the cheers of many. And although the crisp air brings with it the promise of brilliantly-colored leaves and happy faces of blotch pansies and Johnny jump-ups, I have a wistful feeling for summer when my garden is most vibrant with bright blooms. Of course there is a season for everything, but to my way of thinking, Mr. Shakespeare summed it up well: “Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.” But not to fret. There are plenty of “late-bloomers” out there that help extend the feel of the summer season just a little bit longer….

Autumn Rain Lily (Zephyranthes candida)

The autumn rain lily Zephyranthes candida shines in mid-September and makes for an impressive landscape when planted en masse. (Image credit: Melinda Heigel)

There are over 70 species of what is commonly referred to as a rain lily from both the Zephyranthes and Habranthus genera, and their bloom times vary. (They get their name from their propensity to bloom in their native habitat after rainfall.) But the white Zephyranthes candida is a late summer and early-fall perennial stunner. The showy star-shaped flowers (1-3″ wide) resemble the crocus. The rain lily’s growing habit is tightly clumping with grass-like leaves that are semi-evergreen in most of the Southeast. This plant is a low grower–excellent for front of the border specimens and fantastic for lining walkways. A native of Uruguay and Argentina, this bulb performs well in Zones 7-10 and is low maintenance, easy to grow, and has no serous pests. While it can tolerate partial shade, full sun is best for optimum flowers. Like all bulbs, well-drained soil is a must. Shielding the plant from hot afternoon sun extends blooming. Plant these bulbs in the spring after danger of frost has passed.

Yellow Autumn Crocus (Sternbergia sp.)

A member of the amaryllis family, yellow autumn crocus (Sternbergia lutea), also know as fall daffodil, is a cheery addition to the fall garden scape. (Image credit, left to right: Melinda Heigel and Nicholas Schwab CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Crocus-looking flowers typically scream spring, but not Sterbergia. There are many species of this bulb, but if you want a fall bloomer, don’t choose spring bloomers Sternbergia vernalis or Sternbergia candida. Other species of Sternbergia1 lend a bright yellow punch to your garden when many summer plants begin to die back and, depending on the weather, bloom through September into early October. Originating in North Africa and Southern Europe, these flowers start out as little yellow cups and open into full 6-petal flowers that are 1-3″ wide atop petite erect stems. The overall plant has a clumping form. Like the rain lily, the grass-like foliage can be a colorful gift to the winter garden as the leaves are semi-evergreen, usually fading in the spring. This perennial easy-grower is hardy in Zones 7 and above and prefers full sun (part-shade means less blooming). In Zones 1-6 gardeners need to take care to provide the right conditions for these bulbs to overwinter. There are no serious pest or pathogen challenges with the autumn crocus, and they are resistant to deer and rabbits. These small gems are great for naturalized areas, tight spaces, walkways, borders and in mass plantings. Gardeners can grow yellow autumn crocus by seed or bulb division. The best time for bulb division (the preferred method) is winter, during the dormancy phase.

White Ginger Lily (Hedychium coronarium)

The intoxicating perfume of the white ginger lily flower is sweet and honeysuckle-like. They are are often found in leis. (Image credit: Melinda Heigel)

Our own monthly “To Do in the Garden” writer, Gary Crispell, talked about his love of his yellow ginger lily plant in our September blog post (https://wp.me/p2nIr1-2DG). This plant can definitely lend a tropical flair to your late-summer and early-fall garden. Asian in origin, don’t let the name fool you; they aren’t lilies at all but instead are related to the ginger roots. There are many cultivars available in addition to the Hedychium coronarium.2 These plants grow from rhizomes (a structure that is much like what we know as a bulb). These plants have large lance-shaped leaves, white showy flowers, grow in impressive clumps 3-5′ wide, and are up to 6′ tall. Full sun and rich, moist and well-drained soil provide the best growing conditions. Most persist best in Zones 8-10 but there are some that do well to remain in the ground in Zone 7 if planted in a protected location with a heavy layer of mulch for the winter. A perennial in the right conditions, these plants die back to the ground annually. One plus in the late season garden is that the flowers are great at attracting pollinators.

Red Spider Lily (Lycoris Radiata)

Also know as hurricane lilies because they emerge when hurricane season is at its height, the red spider lily is a great bulb to underplant in perennial borders; it fills in just as summer blooms fade. Left, the spider lilies shoot up from the ground, and, right, open to reveal their amazing architectural form. (Image Credit: Melinda Heigel)

Like the rain lily, the red spider lily emerges from a bulb and is part of the amaryllis family. Native to Asia, this plant produces stunning airy blooms that lend great color, structure, and texture to the fall garden in late August and September. Full sun to part shade and well drained soil are a must. Don’t worry if they are slow to develop; sometimes this plant takes its time. The flowers emerge on spikes 12-18″ tall. Only after the blooms fade, do grass-like narrow leaves emerge. Like the other plants above, they can provide some green in the dead of winter. Like most bulbs, don’t cut the foliage back until it yellows in the spring; it’s photosynthesizing for the bulbs’ blooms next year. Plant this bulb in fall and if division is necessary, early spring is the right time to proceed. Spider lilies are cold hardy in Zones 6-10.


1–Other yellow autumn crocus include Sternbergia clasuana, Sternbergia greuterlana, and Sternbergia sicula.

2–Hedychium flavens features a yellow bloom while Hedychium auranticum has salmon-toned flowers.

A note on natives:

While I am featuring non-native plants, there are many wonderful native plants that fruit or bloom in the fall with gorgeous color. These include the American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempenvirens), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), a host of asters (look for genera Symphyotrichum and Eurybia as they are native to North America), New York ironweed (Veronica noveboracensis), and sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale).

Resources and Additional Information

University of Florida’s Extension site provides great information on many types of rain lilies, including propagation techniques


To read more on fall-blooming bulbs, read Illinois Extension’s thorough factsheet


For a closer look at ginger lilies, check out Clemson University’s site below

For more information on planting and care instructions for the red spider lily, click on the video below

VIDEO created by Andy Pulte for “Landscape Plant Identification, Taxonomy and Morphology” a plant identification course offered by the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Tennessee. Note: in the video the spider lily is referred to as a surprise lily, another common name for the plant.

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