How To Grow Foxtail Lily Bulbs: Caring For Eremurus Lilies

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Hailing from Ukraine and much of temperate Asia, the genus Eremurus (er-e-MEW-rus) isn’t what you’d picture when someone mentions lilies, but they’re commonly known as foxtail lilies all the same.

But this name (and their other common name of a desert candle) can be a bit deceiving since these plants aren’t related to lilies at all and aren’t restricted to the desert.

Blooms of the Foxtail lily Pin
The missile-like shape of Eremurus lily displays shafts of swaying color in the garden

These perennial members of the Asphodelaceae family are well known for their tall flower spikes.

Only three species (Eremurus himalaicus, Eremurus robustus, and Eremurus stenophyllus) and the hybrid Eremurus × isabellinus are commonly grown in the US, although there are also many cultivars available.

A few of the more popular cultivars include:

  • ‘Cleopatra’ – dark orange flowers
  • ‘Pinocchio’ – yellowish-orange flowers
  • ‘White Beauty’ – white flowers with yellow stamens

Eremurus Spp. Care

Size and Growth

The exact size and spread of this plant depend on the species or cultivar, with Eremurus robustus (the giant desert candle) reaching 10’ feet high when in bloom with 48” inches-long leaves as wide as 4” inches.

At the other end of the spectrum is Eremurus stenophyllus, the narrow-leaved foxtail lily, which is a mere 3.3” inches tall and wide when in bloom with narrow straplike leaves.

Taller species will need to be sheltered from the wind and may also require some form of support so it doesn’t get damaged while in bloom.

Foxtail lilies are all fast growers and tend to have bright green to blue-green or gray-green foliage.

The leaves usually begin to die off either before or during the plant’s bloom time.

Underground, the plant’s tuberous roots are very fragile and easily damaged if disturbed.

Flowering and Fragrance

Foxtail lilies bloom between late spring and early summer, sporting a single tall spike inflorescence on a central stem.

This inflorescence may be several feet tall on its own and sport up to 800 bright yellow flowers.

Colors include gold, orange, pink, reddish-orange, white, or yellow, and pastel versions of many of these colors.

Moreover, the flowers and leaves will grow from this plant’s central crown.

Even better, the dramatic blooms will last 3 weeks, making them quite the conversation piece.

Light and Temperature

Desert candles love plenty of sunlight; full sun is the way to go if you want them to be at their best.

They can survive in partial shade in a pinch, but the stems will be too weak to support the inflorescence without additional support.

Most species and cultivars fare best in USDA hardiness zones 6 to 8, although some can handle zone 5 or 9.

Some foxtail lilies are more cold hardy, with the narrow-leaved foxtail lily being hardy down to -4° degrees Fahrenheit, although it’s still best to shelter them from icy winds.

In most cases, you’ll want to add a protective layer of mulch topped with evergreen branches to protect the sensitive roots and help prevent winter root rot.

Make sure the mulch itself doesn’t cover the crown.

The above-ground portions of the plant actually benefit from the cold and will produce better dramatic blooms the following year if exposed to a bit of chill.

Watering and Feeding

While foxtail lilies have some drought tolerance and can handle a bit of dryness during the summer, remember they absolutely hate soggy soil and are especially prone to root rot.

To keep them at their best, water is around 1” to 1 ½” inches deep when the soil is dry.

You can test this by sticking your finger straight down into the soil, with the distance from the tip of your finger to each knuckle being approximately 1” inch.

The best watering technique is the soak-and-dry method, as you can do this close to the ground and minimize the risk of the leaves getting too wet.

You’ll find the plant needs to be watered less often during the summer after its foliage has wilted.

The plants in this genus don’t need a lot of feeding and can usually get away with a single dose of a high-potassium fertilizer or potash in the spring.

However, if the soil is poor, you may find you need to give it a general-purpose, balanced liquid-soluble fertilizer monthly in late spring through summer.

Soil and Transplanting

Using the proper soil is paramount to a healthy, happy foxtail lily. But this plant is not fussy about soil conditions as long as there is excellent drainage.

Sandy loam soils are best, making the roots’ expansion easier. As mentioned, this plant thrives in well-drained soil but grows well in sandy soil enriched with leaf mold or compost too.

Heavy clay soils should be avoided. However, you can amend the heavy soils using pea gravel, coarse sand, or perlite as an aggregate and organic matter such as compost or peat moss to improve drainage.

Lily eremurus plants can also handle a fair soil pH range, with most benign happy in 6.5 to 7.5 pH and some species even being able to handle up to 7.8.

Because of their fragile roots, these plants generally don’t do well in containers and can be finicky if you uproot them annually.

However, it’s a good idea to divide them every 3 to 4 years.

When replanting Lily Eremurus plants, make a little mound in the middle of the hole to sit the plant on and gently splay its roots around the mound, filling the hole a little bit at a time with soil.

Make sure the crown will end up above soil level to avoid the risk of crown rot.

Despite being tuberous, you’ll often hear the roots being mistakenly called bulbs, which is a common issue with many plants and can often lead to improper planting.

Grooming and Maintenance

Not a lot of maintenance is needed for these plants.

However, if you don’t want them to self-seed, you must deadhead the inflorescence before the seed pods mature.

You can also remove the flower heads, flower spikes, and dead leaves in the fall.

As mentioned before, cover the roots in a layer of mulch in the fall, being careful not to cover the crown, and lay some evergreen branches over all of it to shield the plant from the worst of the cold.

In addition, it’s best to provide a mulch layer for protection in cold climates.

How To Propagate Desert Candle

You must divide the plant every 3 to 4 years in late summer or early autumn, which can be a perfect excuse for propagation.

However, if the inflorescence is allowed to mature, the plant is a prolific self-seeder that will reseed itself, or you can collect the dried seed pods before they open to start them indoors.

Foxtail Lily Pests Or Diseases

These plants are mildly drought tolerant, and deer and rabbits both tend to leave them alone. They are also critter resistant.

However, slugs and snails can be a problem, especially in the earlier parts of spring.

Root rot is the single biggest problem this genus faces, although other forms of rot can also be an issue if the plant remains too wet.

Note that this entire genus is toxic to both humans and pets.

Eremurus Spp. Uses

Depending on your species or cultivar, foxtail lilies can be a striking addition to borders, rows behind borders, or even a backdrop plant with its “tail” towering above those plants around it.

Their magnificent flowers are also excellent for adding drama and vertical lines early in the mid summer garden.

While growing the smaller desert candles in containers may be possible, their fragile roots can make this difficult unless you’re growing them as annuals.

Due to their earlier blooming time, these bulbous plants are a great choice for a multi-seasonal garden, acting as a transition between the spring and summer bloomers.

Their round flower spires also make beautiful, long-lasting cut flowers.

In addition, this easy-care, pollinator favorite will provide a stunning display to your summer garden with its elegant showstopper flowers.

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