The humble bulb can yield a spectacular plant a few months later, and the foxtail lily is a vivid reminder of this transformation. From one spidery, woody tuber you can grow spires of densely packed flowers that may grow as tall as 8 or 9 feet, depending on the variety. Be sure to buy enough plants so that you won’t mind harvesting some for the vase, as the foxtail lily is an excellent cut flower specimen.
Get to Know Foxtail Lilies
The genus Eremurus contains about 40 species of plants native to central Asia, especially rocky areas in high elevations. The plants thrive in a narrow temperature range that generally makes them suitable to USDA growing zones 5-8. Cold but not frigid winters spur flowering and growth from one year to the next.
Foxtail lilies need a site in full sun. While they can grow in partial shade, the shadier the location, the less strength your lilies will have to grow strong stems to support their magnificent flowers. If you want the look of foxtail lilies in the shade, plant the bugbane flower instead.
Also known as desert candles and king's spears, foxtail lilies grow from 3 to 8 feet or even greater depending on the species. Foxtail lily foliage is strappy and insignificant and may begin the fade before the flowers even form. The late spring bottlebrush-shaped flowers come in warm shades of yellow, orange, pink, and coral, and open from the bottom of the spike to the top.
Foxtail lily tubers are dormant root pieces rather than bulbs. When you get the tubers you’ll notice that they seem dry and somewhat brittle. The dormant plants will plump up after you expose them to moist soil, but take care not to snap off any of the pieces in the meantime.
Providing the right soil tilth is critical for foxtail lilies, as heavy soil is the main reason the plants fail in gardens. Foxtail lilies must have soil that drains well. Soil that is on the sandy side is preferred to clay. If your garden is comprised of heavy clay, plant your foxtail lilies in raised beds.
Choose a site for your foxtail lilies that receives protection from strong winds. What a shame it would be to nurture these giant flower spikes, only to find them snapped in half after a spring storm. Plant the tubers 2 to 4 inches deep (deeper in colder climates and more shallow in warm zones). Give the tubers plenty of room to spread slowly over the years in their permanent garden home, which is approximately 3 feet apart.
You can remove the spent flower heads if you wish, but they look showy when left in place. If you wish to divide the tubers in the fall to get more foxtail lilies, wait several years, as colonies are slow to form. Deer and most other pests avoid the foxtail lily, but slug control may be necessary for the spring.
In the colder zones, especially in zone 5, you must literally tuck your foxtail lilies in with a blanket when winter arrives. The blanket should consist of loose organic material like compost, straw, or mulch. A finishing touch of evergreen branches on the plant crowns is also desirable. This blanket will help your tubers avoid the deadly freeze-thaw cycles that might otherwise turn them to mush.
Including Foxtail Lilies in the Landscape
It may be tempting to crowd your foxtail lilies with other plants that will hide their fading foliage, but don’t do this, as Eremurus likes to have its own space in the garden. Do place these flowers in the back of the border, where their otherworldly spikes will inspire oohs and aahs as they rise seemingly out of nowhere. Foxtail lilies look striking beside peonies or a group of Dutch iris flowers, which bloom at approximately the same time.
Varieties to Try
Look for these varieties:
- Cleopatra: Dark orange flower spikes
- E. robustus: An heirloom variety with pink flowers growing to seven feet or taller
- Pinocchio: Yellowish-orange flowers
- White Beauty: Ivory flowers with prominent yellow stamens