With the forest understory wilted and the smell of sun-scorched leaves hanging in the air, it is all too easy to lose faith in the resiliency of nature. In the middle of such a severe drought, how does a gardener persist? Yet at this very moment, the tender shoots of a precious bulb called magic lily are pushing upwards, poised to break the surface. When they emerge in early September, these bulbs will produce a single stalk bearing a delicate umbel of brilliant red flowers as if to say, "Hope springs eternal." Magic lilies belong to the genus Lycoris, named after a famous mistress of the Roman general Marcus Antonius. All of the members of this genus contain lycorine, a poisonous alkaloid that, while effective as a deer and rodent deterrent, can cause serious illness if ingested. In fact, the Cantonese call the magic lily chung kwai fa, implying that those who mistake the bulb for garlic will become prey for the spirit Chung Kwai, who captures ghosts.Native to Japan and parts of China, magic lilies were an instant sensation among early visitors from the West. One such individual was a Capt. John Roberts, who in 1854 encountered the plant in Japan while traveling with the U.S. Navy under Commodore William Perry. It is rumored that Roberts brought three bulbs back to the port of New Bern, where the lilies made their southeastern debut. His niece later described them as "in such a dry condition that they did not show signs of life until the War Between the States."The bulbs that Roberts obtained in Japan are genetically distinct from the import of today. Having already been cultivated in gardens of Asia, they were a triploid variety, Lycoris radiata var. radiata, whose extra chromosome gave the plants larger flowers and increased vigor. The tradeoff, however, is that the triploid form is sterile and can only be propagated by division. Since World War II, during which trade between the United States and Japan was cut off, Lycoris's more diminutive diploid ancestor, Lycoris radiata var. pumila, which can be grown from seed, has become the predominant commercial form.Fortunately, you can still find direct descendents of the triploid form in old southern gardens such as the Coker Arboretum on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill, where they have multiplied into a breathtaking show of thousands of bulbs.Once the flower is finished, the bulb sends up a nice clump of bluish-green strap-shaped leaves that bring to mind daffodils and make an attractive display. Through the winter the plant does all the photosynthesis for the following year, storing energy in the bulb. As temperatures warm again in the spring, the foliage goes completely dormant.While I have heard others describe the novel life cycle of these garden beauties as backwards, I still prefer to think of them as magic.