Becky Heath wrote about several underutilized bulbs that naturalize well – and I wholeheartedly agree about the Ipheion, Leucojum and Hyacinthoides. They are wonder bulbs!

There is another bulb, however, which is not often mentioned. The Rhodophiala bifida (oxblood lily) is very adaptable. It grows and increases well in almost any type of soil – it’s willing to grow in boggy soil or to bake in clay. It shines in the sun, and it grows taller and blooms longer in shade. These bulbs are practically indestructible!


Rhodophiala bifida

Common Name:

Oxblood lily, schoolhouse lily


Zones 6 to 9(10)

Mature height:

6 to 12 inches

Mature spread:

9 to 12 inches


Fall-blooming bulb

Landscape use:

At the front of borders, even combined with plants that require watering at different times of the year; in large urns flanking walkways and driveways; anywhere a blaze of color is welcome

Ornamental characteristics:

Amaryllis-like blooms of brilliant, blazing red atop sturdy, leafless stems bloom in early fall, followed by strap-like leaves that remain until late spring and go dormant until fall. Some varieties feature soft pink flowers, and a Chilean variety boasts a range of pastel hues from coral and peach to near-white

In fact, these beautiful bulbs are so invincible that most of my nursery beds survived the onslaught of Hurricane Ike, the third costliest Atlantic hurricane in U.S. history. Ike hit in September 2008 – during bloom time. A couple of days after the rain stopped and the sun decided it was safe to venture out again, I decided to do so, also! When I stepped off my front porch with my coffee cup in hand to survey the damage, I turned to face the nursery beds on the west side of my property. I almost dropped my coffee cup. Lo and behold, there in all their glory were my 10 beds of oxbloods, just ablaze in the morning sun. Despite fallen tree limbs covering the beds, they were all flowering like it was their first flush of bloom for the season. If I had not already been in love with these small beauties, this would definitely have turned me on to them.

The most commonly known oxblood is ‘Hill Country Red’ – so named for its abundant presence in the Texas Hill Country where it first gained prominence – but Rhodophiala bifida blooms in a range of colors from blazing red to delicate pink and even pastel tones of peach to ivory. These bulbs bloom in September on leafless stalks that arise and flower within a couple of weeks after pushing their spikes out of the ground. Leaves then emerge and remain through the winter months in zones 6 through 9 or 10.

The bulbs are covered with a black, paperish tunic, and they have the ability to use their contractrile roots to pull themselves down where they stay cool in the hot sun in the summer time. When mature, they are surrounded at the base by a bunch of bulblets that spiral up and around the mother bulb and push their leaves out of the ground to reach sunshine so they can mature and eventually bloom like their mother does.

Oxblood lilies don’t have to be dug up and divided after two to three years as lots of bulbs require. They will still bloom beautifully, growing all over each other to reach the sun. However, to allow them to bloom as best they can, I would dig out and transplant mature bulbs (not all of them) in other places and leave the “children” to fend for themselves at home.

When I was thinking about starting a nursery years ago, I knew I wanted things to grow that I didn’t have to “coddle,” and these red oxbloods filled the bill. I was still working full time then (1987), and I’m still working full time now at 80 years old – and tending the nursery as well. So my goal was to find tough, hardy bulbs that had been making it on their own for years with no help from anyone except God’s bounty of rain, sun and decaying matter for food. That included heirloom daffodils, lycoris, snowflakes and a multitude of other hardy bulbs. And a favorite – oxblood lily.