Human Flower Project

School House Lilies

On schedule, students are back in class and the school house lilies are in bloom.  Jill Nokes, author of the forthcoming book Yard Art & Handmade Places, notes the paradox of their simultaneous uprooting and rediscovery. Thank you, Jill!


Homer comes upon a display of oxblood lilies

in an abandoned yard in Hyde Park,  Austin, TX

Photo: Jill Nokes

By Jill Nokes

A developer is tearing down four houses across the street from our neighborhood park. No doubt the lots will soon be packed with houses built super-sized to exploit the high value of central city land.  I won’t be missing the houses so much; they weren’t anything special, just simple wood-frame cottages built after WW II, with refreshingly modest proportions.  But what I will miss are the masses of school house lilies that would suddenly appear in the neglected yards of those shabby rent houses in late August and September, after the first rains came to break summer’s long drought. Every year, among the dried pecan husks, sticker-burrs, and overgrown Bermuda grass, the bulbs would seem to emerge overnight; a sure signal that summer was beginning to wind down and the most delightful of Texas seasons- fall - was around the corner.  It always felt like Mother Nature was signaling us to hold on just a little bit longer.

“School house lily” is just one of the names given to this bulb, Rhodophiala bifida. It was assigned, no doubt, because these little amaryllids appear right around the time school starts. A more familiar name for them is “oxblood lilies.”  Their bright red, delicate blossoms are held on smooth, slender stems and form random bouquets across the yard. Sometimes in old yards you can tell where the owner might have lined a walkway with them. They multiply quickly from offsets, sprinkling themselves around the yard in ways never intended by the original owner, but still a delight to the passerby.


Rhodophiala bifida, fall harbinger in Central Texas

Photo: Jill Nokes

Scott Ogden, in his book Garden Bulbs for the South, tells us that these lilies are natives of Argentina and Uruguay. “No other Southern bulb can match the fierce vigor, tenacity, and adaptability of the oxblood lily,” writes Ogden.  “Whether planted on worn-out gumbo clay, or on impoverished sand, the long-necked black bulbs make themselves at home. The plants send out thick, white roots, which contract and pull them deeply into the soil, sometimes as far as eighteen inches.  Safely hidden in the cool earth, they multiply into healthy clumps.”

Central Texas is a good place to find these forgotten colonies of scarlet bulbs, for it was a German émigré, Peter Henry Oberwetter, who imported the bulbs while living in Austin until his death in 1915. As Ogden remarks, “he must have discovered and selected the vigorous Rhodophiala strain we now enjoy.” 

Oxblood lilies are making a come back in the horticultural trade. You can buy them on line and many nurseries have baskets of the bulbs for sale in spring. Still, I will miss their random, extravagant displays in untended and forgotten yards.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 09/07 at 11:42 AM


Hi Jill and Julie,

MSS at Zanthan Gardens, share,d her Rhodophiala last year, so there are School house lilies blooming in my NW Austin garden right now. I didn’t know about Peter Henry Oberwetter - thank you for giving a name to the person who brought them to Austin nearly a century ago.

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

Posted by Annie in Austin on 09/09 at 03:43 PM

Julie, would you like some?

Posted by M Sinclair Stevens (Austin) on 09/10 at 08:08 AM

What a wonderful article. The schoolhouse lilies remind me of my birthday flower: the Autumn Crocus that also blooms when school starts (my birthday is September 4). The original concept of a birthday flower came from my mother who always associated my birthday with naked ladies, that is the Amaryllis Belladonna, which blooms in Southern California where I was born. Someone brought her a bouquet when she was in the hospital after giving birth to me. I define a birthday flower as one that blooms on your birthday in the area where you live.

Posted by Waverly Fitzgerald on 09/10 at 11:58 PM

Thanks to all for writing in. Love the idea of a “birthday flower,” Waverly—tho for those of us with winter birthdays it suggests “move on down South!” February can actually be fairly floral in Austin but Kentucky was not ~ maybe a purple crocus but usually it was mud, brown grass and bare branches.

MSS, your generosity abounds, as Annie shows us. I would love a schoolhouse lily from your garden (though my yard is suffering from such neglect, you may want to reconsider).

There is something powerful in these oxblood lilies, to be sure. Thanks again to Jill for the essay.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 09/11 at 12:04 PM
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