Foxtail Lily, Eremurus: “Sun Spikes”
If you are a fan of high drama in the garden, then it does not get more showy than Eremurus. The foxtail lily, as it also known, is a towering spike that emerges in midsummer and can reach 7 feet or sometimes higher from a basal clump of strappy leaves.
Its foliage first appears in early spring and when its dramatic spike emerges and reaches full height, hundreds of tiny flowers open from the bottom up, making a stunning display in midsummer borders.
Its name comes from classical Greek, eremos, meaning desert, and oura, meaning tail, and it’s a member of the lily family. Foxtail lily is native to the rocky sun-baked hillsides of eastern Europe and central Asia, and so it follows that Eremurus likes good drainage and a sunny position as well as a cold snap in the winter.
Because these plants need to get as much light as possible to their basal foliage, they won’t appreciate overcrowding or being overshadowed by other plants. At Sissinghurst Castle in England, they grow the glowing pink spires of E. robustus with a skirt of airy Ammi majus, which makes for a stunning combination in June.
But after the spikes are over and the basal foliage disappears, you will be left with a gap in the border so there needs to be some careful design to avoid this. Neat mounds, such as euphorbia or Geranium psilostemon, work well with the spikes or surround them with later-flowering plants such as asters or low-growing grasses. Alternatively plug the gaps with annuals to provide cover over high summer.
- The bulbs are extraordinary with a central crown surrounded by spidery tendrils, which also give a clue to how specific the planting needs to be.
- To ensure they don’t get water-logged, position plants on top of a layer of horticultural grit or sand with the roots splayed out, and then cover with no more than an inch of soil; the crown should just be at the surface of the soil.
- E. robustus is the most dramatic towering specimen, but there are many foxtail lily cultivars that grow to 5 feet, mostly of Eremurus x isabellinus, including the bright pink ‘Rosalind’ and the orange ‘Cleopatra’.
Keep It Alive
- The roots of the eremurus are not only long and planted perilously close to the surface, they are also brittle. So mark where they are planted with a cane and take extra care when weeding or planting close by.
- It will produce seedlings but leave the flower spike standing into the autumn if you want it to reproduce.
- If you succeed in getting them to colonize, then they will eventually get congested and will need to be divided in late summer or early autumn. Eremurus needs to be very carefully lifted and then carefully separated and replanted.
N.B.: This post has been updated with new shopping information; it was first published April 2017.
For more of our favorite flowers for a colorful summer border, see:
- Design Guide: Flowering Perennials.
- Garden Design 101: Milkweed for Monarchs.
- Studio Visit: Electric Daisy Flower Farm.