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Trumpeting spring

The plants are attacking!

Nope, not the corny, people-eating triffids in that bad '60s sci-fi flick, but amaryllids, the just-as-tenacious family of tropical bulbs that all boast (sometimes giant) trumpet-shaped blooms despite requiring zero care.

While they won't attack you with strangling roots and digestive tendrils, amaryllids will leap out at you with their exotic, colorful beauty. Most hail from South Africa, plus mild regions of China, Japan and central America and thus love our drought-then-monsoon-like climate. All refoliate quickly after a freeze, and multiply underground; in a few years one bulb will be several you can then divide and spread around your yard because they transplant very easily with no shock. All prefer full sun but tolerate light shade, and I've yet to see one die from bugs or disease in 30 years of gardening here.

We've all admired the founding members of the group, the amaryllis that startle us each spring with their sudden thick stalks rising out of the soil topped with hugely flaring trumpets of deep red, pure white, warm salmon, soft pink and every shade in between. My landscape clients at first are reluctant to cut them for bouquets but then get hooked the first time they fill a heavy vase for the dinner table.

Like orchids but feel too intimidated by them to try? Get yourself a few sprekelia bulbs and indulge each spring in their graceful scarlet blooms that mimic cattelya orchids. The foot-tall stems are spectacular in arrangements and the bulbs grow and multiply like weeds.

Don't let their name fool you; the spider lilies (Hymenocallis or Ismene) aren't creepy but pure white exercises in floral grace. It's hard to see a "spider" in their long white petals connected at the base by a white skirt, but a curious nose will find a sweet, lemony perfume like no other flower's.

Spider lilies can reach 20 inches tall, thrive in very boggy areas and in surprising shade, so use them to beautify a down spout or drainage area in your yard. With long stems of "indigo spires" blue salvia they create stunning bouquets.

Good thing that the crinums aren't triffids, as they are the giant redwoods of the amaryllids, their lush tropical-looking leaves reaching up to 6 feet tall and across on some species. Their bulbs, when mature, can weigh as much as a child, and the wrist-thick stems can let you look into the blooms face to face. The blossoms are majestic, huge funnels in white, pink, salmon and white-striped-burgundy. Remarkably shade tolerant, they can be a wonderful focal point for a front-door garden. You'll need a very heavy vase for bouquets worthy of a photo. They make little "pups" at their bases, and folks love to share them. Hundreds of hybrids have been bred, including a giant one with purple leaves.

The rain lilies (Zephyranthes) on the other hand, are petite garden elves you may have seen pop up after a good spring or summer rain. Just 4 inches tall, they look like pale pink miniature amaryllis and are sometimes sold under that label in garden catalogs. Buy bags of the bulbs at garden shops and try planting them as a border plant since their attractive blue green leaves are also petite.

The kafir lily (Clivia miniata) is so shade tolerant that it was one of great-grandma's favorite potted houseplants, blooming readily indoors. Planted in a central Florida shade garden it cheers up the gloom with thick stalks topped with clusters of orange-red funnels. The fiery red-orange berries that follow once again enliven the shade with eye-catching color.

Scarborough lilies (Vallota) resemble smaller amaryllis but each scarlet or white bloom is more cup shaped. They generally are sold only in better mail order bulb catalogs.

Each autumn the nerines will be leafless and long forgotten then suddenly will shoot up their foot-tall stalks topped with clusters of 3-inch long red, pink or white trumpets. But it is their graceful stamens that project another 3 inches out of the throat of each bloom that add to the drama. Once very rare, they now are starting to show up in little bags at garden shops and in catalogs. Three stalks in a slender vase make for understated elegance.

The related lycoris are similar but taller, 2 or 3 feet high in the garden where they too erupt suddenly each autumn after their leaves ripen and wither each summer. These natives of Japan and China will bestow your garden with exotic "lilies" in orange, pink, red or white.

Those triffids would love the blood lily (Haemanthus), at least for the name. Just picture a Fourth of July fireworks burst of hundreds of blood-red flowers in a globular cluster atop a thick stem. The blood lily is shade tolerant, and offers startling drama as a cut flower, especially if mixed with a few stalks of spider lily.

Let the amaryllids chase you soon into a garden shop for a lifetime of exceptionally hassle-free beauty in and outside your home.

SOURCES: K. Van Bourgondien 1-800-552-9996; local garden shops and centers

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