Come fall, it’s time to once again get serious about putting together a bulb order for the spring garden. While tulips and daffodils garner most of the space in bulb catalogs and on the shelves of big box stores, there are many other interesting species worth checking out. One group that caught my attention recently was the foxtail lilies, or desert candles (Eremurus).

Shelford Mix foxtail lily

Planted in fall, foxtail lilies add great pizzazz to the late spring border. The Shelford Mix has a variety of bloom colors.

Photo Credit: Ednie Flower Bulb, Inc.

Eremurus stenophyllus

Narrow-leaved foxtail lily (Eremurus stenophyllus) sports a beautiful yellow bloom.

Photo Credit: Jessie Keith

Spring Valley Hybrid Desert Candle

The plants look best when used in groups or in mass.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

Eremurus ‘Spring Valley’

Foxtail lilies are beautiful bulbs from the steppes of Central Asia. This is one of Ken Romrell’s Spring Valley Hybrids.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

Foxtail lilies are tuberous-rooted, herbaceous perennials. They have narrow leaves that reach half an inch wide and a foot long, arising from a crown of slender tuberous roots that radiate out horizontally like spokes of a wheel. The leaves emerge with the shoot in spring and die away by early summer.

Depending on the type of foxtail lily you get, the flower spike grows 3-5 feet tall with a bottlebrush-type inflorescence that occupies the upper half of the stem. Blooming usually occurs in late spring or early summer. Each stem gets crowded with 500-700 half-inch-wide, star-shaped flowers in shades of yellow, white, bronze, orange or pink. The flowers open from the bottom up, with individual stems lasting for 2 weeks or longer. The flower scape continues to elongate as the pea-sized seed capsules develop.

Eremurus species are beautiful plants from a part of the world that’s both difficult to reach and from areas that have had a long history of conflict. Because of these factors and the fact that Central Asia is an enormous tract of ground, this plant genus is still relatively unknown. Between 40-50 species have been described, but only a few have ever been grown in gardens – the most common of which are Eremurus x isabellinus, Eremurus robustus and Eremurus stenophyllus, as well as their hybrids and cultivars.

The first hybrids were produced in 1902 by Sir Michael Foster (1836-1907), a medical doctor who taught physiology at Cambridge in England, using E. olgae x E. stenophyllus. From these first hybrids (called Shelford Hybrids, because they were cultivated in Great Shelford, UK), clones were selected and propagated vegetatively. In the 1950s, Ruiter Hybrids were developed by a Dutch nursery professional, using some of Foster’s original hybrids to create the named clones now offered in bulb catalogs. ‘Cleopatra’, a striking orange foxtail lily, is probably the most common of these.

The foxtail lilies offered in catalogs are the product of a kind of Darwinian selection process. The hybrid seedlings that survived in Foster’s and Ruiter’s seed plots were those plants that would tolerate a decidedly non-desert environment. (Tulips hail from the same region as foxtail lilies). In a kind of interesting twist, Ken Romrell, a cutflower grower in Spring Valley, ID, is now offering foxtail lily hybrids grown in a climate more like the steppe areas of Central Asia than the cool, dank climate of northern Europe.

Foxtail lilies require full sun in rich, organic soils that are well-drained, especially in winter. They’re hardy from USDA hardiness zones 5-9. Mixing sand into the planting area or planting in raised beds is advisable if you suspect your garden has poor drainage. Like most bulbs, foxtail lily should be planted in fall to enjoy the spectacular bloom show come spring. A very broad hole in loose, sandy soil should be dug and then the roots fanned out from the central crown, which should be planted 2 inches deep.

When plants have finished flowering, the clump should be allowed to dry out over summer. Excessive summertime irrigation is sure to cause roots to rot. This beauty resents being disturbed once established, so plant it where it can be left alone. If division is needed, do so in late summer, and replant the division immediately. Plants can be grown from seed, too, but then it would be 4-5 years before you see that first spectacular bloom – and who can wait that long?!