With their unusual tall flower spikes the desert candles and foxtail lilies can be a sight to behold, says Miranda Kimberley.

E. stenophyllus - image: Floramedia
E. stenophyllus - image: Floramedia

Eremurus is one of the strangest-looking bulbs, like a spider or an octopus with its pointed central growing point and long "legs" that are the roots. I had never realised quite how long these could get until Jacques Amand managing director John Amand sent me a photo of his daughter Joanna with her Eremurus namesake and its 9ft-long tentacles.

Once grown, the foxtail lilies are a sight to behold, producing beautiful brush-tail spires in shades of white, yellow, orange, rust and pink that tower above other plants in the border.

Some gardeners have been put off growing these striking bulbs because they have failed to establish. But there are tricks that can lead to success — planting just below soil level and in an exposed position, without any overshading plants.

Eremurus is part of the Liliaceae family and comes from eastern Europe and temperate Asia. They are known as "desert candles" and "foxtail lily", referring to how they are never completely straight but sometimes weave around. One of the tallest species is E. robustus Award of Garden Merit (AGM), a giant reaching up to 9ft in perfect conditions. It produces a rosette of bluish-green strap-shaped leaves then a flower spike with peachy pink/white flowers, with contrasting orangey stamens and a yellow central boss. They are lightly scented and highly attractive to honeybees.

E. himalaicus is much smaller and flowers earlier. E. stenophyllus AGM has rich yellow flowers and is a compact form. Highly popular is the hybrid E. × isabellinus and its many cultivars, including the famous Ruiter hybrids and bright forms, the orange ‘Cleopatra’ and the bright-pink ‘Rosalind’.

Plant Eremurus in a sunny, open position without competition. They like a fertile, well-drained but not dry soil. To give them the best chance, plant in autumn on a cone of soil with the roots hanging down, on a layer of horticultural grit or sand, and ensure the crown is exposed.
Foliage develops first in late winter or spring, then begins to die down as flower spikes grow up to bloom in summer. The tiny flowers open from the bottom of the spike upwards and often turn a shade darker or lighter as they age, creating a two-tone effect.

Flowers are only produced after a cold snap, so milder winters may explain why gardeners are not having the success they may have once enjoyed. But they can romp away when established so, if you are lucky enough to get them settled in, allow the seed to drop before cutting down the spent flower spikes and you will get colonies of these statuesque beauties.

What the specialists say

John Amand, managing director, Jacques Amand, Middlesex

"Eremurus are fantastic statement plants. Some people have trouble growing them, but get the conditions right — an exposed location giving full light, with a cold spell in winter, and plant them just below the soil surface — and there’s no reason you shouldn’t succeed.

"They are originally from high mountain passes in countries including Afghanistan and Iran, where they are called ‘desert candles’ — tough hardy bulbs that respond well to a cold winter. Just remember not to plant them too deep and that they don’t like competition. You can even break a tentacle off and it won’t kill the bulb.

"One of my favourites is named after my daughter, Joanna. It’s a white-flowered variety growing up to 2m high and its roots can be as long, if not longer. Garden designer Ulf Nordfjell once bought up our entire stock. Also of note is the nice orange ‘Cleopatra’ and the shorter varieties named after dances."

In practice

John Winterson, deputy plant buyer, RHS Plant Centres

"Our customers love to choose from the starfish-like rhizomes when we have them in stock in the autumn. We sell our widest range this way, but we also try to have a few pot-grown plants in flower later on in the year, but as you can imagine they need a fairly large pot, often
10- or 15-litre.

"Our best seller is E. stenophyllus with its impressive heads of yellow flowers, followed by E. ‘Romance’ with its pink flowers. We try to vary the range sold by RHS Wisley Plant Centre because there is quite a wide range offered to us from our growers with occasional new cultivars.

"A recent one to us that has sold well is a variety called ‘Jeannie-Claire’. It is a fantastic yellow colour with spikes up to 180cm that is great for cutting.

"The dry rhizomes are sold from trays so our customers can help themselves, along with other unusual bulbs in an alphabetical layout. Colour bed cards and labels are used to provide images and a brief description.

"The potted plants are always sold in bud as well as in flower and they can be found in the herbaceous perennial section of the plant centre, usually in the A-Z area. Being so tall they are not suitable for high display tables because you cannot see the flowers easily. Our customers love to carry home tall flowering plants — it’s just like being at a flower show."

Species and varieties

E. ‘Charleston’ produces tall spikes of lemon-yellow flowers in June and July. Height: 1.3m.

E. × isabellinus ‘Cleopatra’ has tall spikes of burnt-orange flowers above strap-shaped, bluish-green leaves in early and mid summer. Height 1.6m. Spread 60cm.
E. × isabellinus ‘Pinokkio’ is relatively compact and produces spikes of rusty orange buds opening to peach-flushed, golden-yellow flowers. Height 1.2m. Spread: 40cm.

E. ‘Joanna’ is a very tall variety that forms basal rosettes of strap-shaped, dark-green leaves and produces stems bearing dense, erect racemes of star-shaped white flowers in summer. Height: 2m.

E. ‘Line Dance’ is a pure-white form that produces its flowers in June. Height: 1.2cm.

E. robustus AGM (H7) produces enormous spikes of pale- to deep-pink flowers between June and July. Height: 1.8m.

E. ‘Romance’ produces tall spikes of salmon-pink flowers in June. Height: 150cm.
E. ‘Rumba’ produces orange flowers between June and July. Height: 1.25m.

E. stenophyllus AGM (H6) produces slender spikes of dark-yellow flowers in early and mid summer above strap-shaped, bluish-green leaves. The yellow flowers open from the base of the spike and darken as they age, creating a two-tone effect. Height: 1.5m. Spread: 60cm.

E. ‘Tap Dance’ has tall spikes of buttercup-yellow flowers in July. Height: 1.25-1.5m.

E. ‘White Beauty Favourite’ (PBR) is a recently introduced Ruiter hybrid that has striking tapering plumes clothed with brilliant white flowers that open gradually from the bottom upwards. Excellent as a cut flower. Height: 1.25m. Spread: 50cm.

E. ‘White Sensation’ produces, unsurprisingly, brilliant white flowers between June and July. Height: 1.25m.

Thank you to Floramedia, which supplied the images for this article from its photo library

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