Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
I spent years wondering why so many people love liriope. It just looks like a small bunch of grass. Sure it makes a tidy border along paths, pools and flowerbeds, but it just looked boring to me. Turns out I was seeing it during the wrong season. When liriope blooms in the fall, it is transformed into a lovely addition to any landscape.
What is Liriope?
Liriope is a small, grasslike plant that is not actually a grass. Nicknamed “monkey grass” and “lily turf”, it’s not a lily either. Rather, it is related to the houseplants, sansevieria (mother in laws tongue) and dracaena (lucky bamboo). It is native to East Asia and perennial in zones 6 through 11 depending on the variety. It is evergreen in zones 7 through 11. In zone 6, you should cut down the dead foliage in the spring to allow the new foliage to grow. The foliage can be dark green or variegated white and green.
Liriope will grow in full sun or partial shade. It does best in partial shade, especially in the southern US where the intense heat of summer can dry the plants out when exposed to full sun. Brown tips on the leaves are a sure sign of too much sun and too little water.
The plants bloom in the late summer/early fall. The flowers appear on a stalk and can be white, blue or lavender. They are followed by small, dark berries.
The Common Varieties of Liriope
Here in the US, two varieties of liriope are sold: Liriope muscari and Liriope spicata. Muscari is larger than spicata. It can grow to 18 inches tall with a spread of 12 inches. Spicata is shorter, only growing to 15 inches in height and spreading 24 inches.
Both spread by underground runners, but spicata spreads more aggressively. It makes an excellent groundcover. It is recommended that you plant it surrounded by some kind of hardscaping such as a wall or sidewalk to prevent it from spreading into your lawn or garden. Spicata is so aggressive that it has been declared an invasive species in the Southeastern US.
Muscari is a much less aggressive spreader. It makes a neat edging along sidewalks and driveways. It grows slowly enough that you only need to divide it every three to four years to keep it in check.
How to Grow Liriope as a Houseplant
Because it is a shade lover, you can grow liriope indoors as a houseplant. It is sold in pots, so instead of removing it from the pot and planting it in your garden, you can transplant it into an attractive pot and grow it indoors. It will happily grow in any type of soil. Water it regularly throughout the growing season, i.e. spring through fall. Cut back on watering it in the winter. Don’t stop watering it completely. It is a sub-tropical plant so it doesn’t go dormant in the winter. It just grows more slowly in the winter and so needs less water. You can use any fertilizer that is recommended for houseplants. The slow release fertilizer is the easiest. You can add it in the spring when the plant starts growing again.
How to Grow Liriope in Your Garden
Most of us grow liriope outdoors as an edging, a groundcover or a specimen plant. It is usually purchased as individual plants at a local nursery or nursery center at a big box store. If you are planning on using it as a groundcover or edging, space your plants about 12 inches apart. As noted above, spicata is an aggressive spreader and should be surrounded by some kind of hardscape to prevent it from escaping into your lawn or garden.
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Both varieties can be divided every three to four years in the spring, either to keep them in check or if you wish to propagate them and grow more. If you don’t wish to divide your plants, you don’t have to. Unlike a lot of perennials that stop blooming or bloom poorly when they haven’t been divided, liriope will continue to bloom beautifully if left undivided for years.
If you live in zone 6 or colder, leave the dead foliage on over the winter, cutting it down without damaging the crown of the plants in the spring to allow for new growth.
How to Divide Liriope
If you wish to divide your liriope, it should be done in the early spring just as the plants start growing. Carefully dig up the clump(s) that you wish to divide. Wash the soil from the roots so you can see them clearly. Gently tease apart the clump into separate plants making sure that each clump has both roots and foliage.
Replant each new division being careful to keep the crown of the plants level with the top of the soil. If you plant it too deep, i.e. cover it with soil, the plant will die. Space your divisions 12 inches apart.
How to Grow Liriope From Seed
Liriope can be grown from seed, but the seed must be fresh. It only remains viable for a few weeks. You will need to harvest the seed directly from the plants. In the fall, when the berries that contain the seeds ripen, carefully cut the stalks on which they are growing from the plants and hang them upside down somewhere protected with good air circulation.
Once the berries are completely dry, soak the seeds in a bowl of water for 24 hours to remove the pulp that surrounded them inside the berries. Then you will need to soak the seeds for an additional 10 minutes in a weak bleach solution (1 part bleach to 9 parts water) to remove phenoic compounds that inhibit germination.
At this point, you can either start your seeds indoors or outdoors.
Indoors: plant the seeds ¼ inch deep in separate pots and keep them at room temperature and evenly moist until germination which should occur in 1 to 2 weeks. You can transplant your seedlings outdoors when they are 1 inch in height.
Outdoors: plant your seeds ¼ inch deep and 12 inches apart where you want your plants to grow. Water well after planting and then about once a week until germination which should occur in 1 to 2 weeks. Cut back on watering after germination so as not to drown your seedlings.
Questions & Answers
Question: I live in zone 11 or 12 in Puerto Rico. Why doesn't my liriope ever bloom, despite being strong and green?
Answer: My guess is that it is getting too much sun. Liriope likes a little shade. You should move it to a spot where it gets morning sun only, no afternoon sun.
Question: Can big blue Europe be planted under trees?
Answer: Yes, it can be planted under trees, but it will compete for moisture and nutrients with the tree. The tree always wins, so it is best not to plant anything directly under a tree.
© 2018 Caren White