Peruvian lilies trumpet their beauty

Alstroemeria are some of the most beautiful low-water plants in the garden. Upright green stems can rise about 4 feet high, topped by a cluster of lily-shaped trumpets.

The colors and patterns of the 3-inch flowers, known to many as Peruvian lilies, are stunning. They range from nearly white, soft pink and pale yellow to brilliant gold, bright red and intense magenta, even purple. Most are multicolored with yellow throats and burgundy or black speckles and streaks.

Though they're available in stores year-round, the best time to plant is fall through early spring. These lilies are native not only to Peru, but also to Chile, Argentina and Brazil. They first appeared in California's floral trade in the early 1980s. Another decade passed before the plants made their way into local nurseries. During that time, hybridizers were working on their color, height and bloom time.

In nature, the lilies sprout new stems in fall, bloom through spring, then retreat into the ground to survive the heat of summer. New "ever blooming" varieties have been bred to shorten the cycle; dormancy is limited and plants bloom nearly year-round.

Dig up a clump of Peruvian lilies, and you'll see that their pinkie-sized tubers store water, helping them to survive dry times. As the plants mature, the number of tubers increases, making these lilies easy to divide and share. See one you love in a neighbor's garden? Ask for a few tubers to take home.

Peruvian lilies bloom best in full sun, but they also tolerate part shade. Well-draining soil is best, whether you're putting them in the ground or in a pot. Plants need little water once established. If the blooms are sparse, increase watering a bit or move the plants to a sunnier location. For maximum bloom, feed once in early spring and once in early fall with all-purpose organic fertilizer.

Some older varieties, especially the species Peruvian lilies, reseed aggressively. Newer hybrids have sterile flowers, largely eliminating that problem. Even so, plant where they have plenty of room to expand. Some varieties can spread to 5 feet across.

Part of the plant's appeal is its yield of flowers. Harvest the stems as buds begin to open. Rather than cut stems with a scissors or shears, grab each one a few inches below the flowers, and yank the entire stem from the ground. Yes, yank it. If other stems have finished blooming, yank those too. Prevailing wisdom holds that the tubers will sprout more flowering stems. The more you yank, the more flowers you get.

Some of the more commonly available varieties include 'Tricolor,' with yellow-throated, white and bright pink flowers with brownish streaks; the 'Princess' series of dwarfs (8 to 12 inches tall) with multicolored pink, orange, magenta or coral blooms; and 'Third Harmonic,' which is peachy orange and coral pink with burgundy streaks.

Sterman is a freelance writer.

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