771 Alstroemeria psittacinaCommon Names: parrotlily, parrot flower, red parrot beak, New Zealand Christmas bell, Inca lily, Peruvian lily Family: Amaryllidaceae (amaryllis Family)
Parrotlilies grow from clusters of white peanut-sized tubers arranged like the spokes of a wagon wheel. In the spring, they send up 8-12 in (20-30.5 cm) stalks that have the general character of an upright Solomon's seal with the foliage clustered in a little umbrella at the top of the stem. Although the stem is arrow-straight and the foliage is held in a horizontal position, the glistening parallel-veined pale green leaves tend to curl under at the edges and droop at the ends and always look a bit limp. As the season progresses, the stem elongates to 18-30 in (46-76 cm) and the leaves (now looking more twisted than limp) appear to spread out along its length in a stretched out spiral arrangement. Early in the summer, clusters of red flowers appear at the stem tips. The tubular 1-2 in (2.5-5 cm) flowers look like distorted azalea blossoms that are struggling to open. The ragged uneven petal edges curl slightly inward instead of flaring outward. The flowers are crimson on the outside with light lemon-lime shades at the petal tips and on the inside. The interior of the flower is streaked with greenish-black.
The blossoms are followed by barrel-shaped 3/4 in (2 cm) long seed pods. The whole plant turns straw-colored before it goes dormant and disappears in the late summer or early fall. 'Mona Lisa' has brighter, bigger, and more abundant flowers than the species. There is also a variegated form that has leaves heavily streaked with creamy white. 'Frosted Peruvian Lily' has cinnamon colored flowers and white tipped foliage. 'Parrot' is a cross of A. psittacina, A. caryophyllae, and A. inodora.
There are some 30 species of Alstroemeria that occur in grasslands and pampas in South America. A. psittacina is native to northern Brazil. This is a popular ornamental in New Zealand, where it blooms at Christmas and is known as "New Zealand Christmas bell." Parrotlily has escaped cultivation and naturalized in many parts of the world, including the southeastern U.S.
CultureParrotlilies like rich, slightly acidic soils (pH 5.8 -6.8). Container plants do well in a soil mix of half Perlite and half ground up and composted wood chips and bark. Fertilize regularly with a complete nitrogen-heavy supplement Light: Grow in full sun where summer temperatures are moderate. High or partial shade is preferred in hot climates. Moisture: Although they can survive drought by going dormant, parrotlilies need very moist, but well aerated soil, to grow well. They will tolerate some flooding, but the rhizomes tend to rot if the soil is too heavy and/or remains wet for too long. Hardiness: USDA Zones 7 - 10. Parrotlily may look exotic, but it is not a tropical plant. Though it will tolerate hot summers, this species is happiest when the gardener is comfortable in a long-sleeved shirt, not sweating in a Hawaiian print. The plants will go dormant if the soil temperature rises to around 70°F (21°C). The rhizomes require winter chilling. If planted 8 in (20 cm) deep and heavily mulched, they will survive temperatures down to nearly 0°F (-17.7°C). In very cold climates, the tubers can be overwintered in damp sand or peat at a temperature of 35-40°F (1.7-4.4°C), but they are fragile and must be handled carefully and not allowed to dry out. Propagation: Parrotlily germinates poorly, slowly, and erratically. Only about 20 percent of the seeds sprout and grow successfully. Soaking the seeds for 12 hours prior to sowing is recommended. They should be planted when the weather is still warm, but don't expect them to sprout before they have been thoroughly cooled by temperatures down to around 35-40°F (1.7-4.4°C). Place the seed trays in indirect light and keep them constantly moist while you wait...and wait. Don't be too quick to give up. Seedlings will keep popping up over a long period of time. Once they do, they'll grow to transplant size in 4-6 weeks and make respectable pot plants 6-10 weeks thereafter. Be extremely careful about transplanting parrotlilies. The roots are brittle and the plants can easily be killed by rough handling. In the garden, set tubers at least 6 in (15 cm) deep and 12-18 in (30.5-46 cm) apart. In cold climates plant 8 in (20 cm). Young plants in nursery beds will grow faster 2 in (5 cm) deep and 20 in (51 cm) apart. When you set them out, carefully spread their delicate roots over a mound of earth like you would a daylily's.
Parrotlilies lend red color and exotic atmosphere to the garden. They also make good cut flowers with an exceptionally long vase life. The roots of many Alstroemeria species are used to make a starchy farina.
This is a seductive plant. It is colorful, unusual, and exotic looking and effortless to grow once you get it going. Every gardener I know who has seen it has wanted it, begged a start, then nurtured it and delighted in it - for a few years. Then every one of them has come to curse the way it spreads and taken to ripping it out with a vengeance. Perhaps its best use is as breeding stock for developing more spectacular and less troublesome varieties of Alstroemeria.
This is an extremely invasive species. Although it has not yet been widely recognized as an ecological problem, parrotlily has spread into natural areas in western Australia and is likely to do so elsewhere. It is definitely ill behaved in cultivation. It self-seeds vigorously unless the flowers are cut off after blooming. Neglect deadheading or move a few tubers around in the soil and it will spread throughout your garden and haunt you forever. You can pull up every visible shred or even move away and start over with a new landscape. For a time, you may actually believe you have triumphed. But then you'll see that little umbrella of leaves popping up next to a prized plant... Spraying with Roundup just before the plants go dormant will knock parrotlily back, but it will take most of your nearby plants with it - and one or two treatments won't kill all of it.
Linda Conway Duever 8/10/00; updated 1/20/05