Georgiann Potts

Writer’s Note: This column is dedicated to Kathy Hart, a good friend who recently reminded me of the beauty and legends surrounding the mysterious spider lilies.

My first awareness of spider lilies came decades ago when I was teaching English 309: “Louisiana Life and Literature” at the University of Louisiana at Monroe (ULM). I had developed the course in an attempt to combine Louisiana’s rich literary and cultural heritages in a way that would bring a better awareness of just how special Louisiana is. Several of my students from out-of-state were curious about this unfamiliar lily and wanted to learn more about it through their research.

I loved teaching that course, and have never forgotten the hundreds of students who took it as an elective. Their enthusiasm encouraged my own, and in many ways I am still researching in this same field these many years later.

It never gets old. — GP

Those Mysterious Lilies!

Our lilies were late blooming this year. I started looking for them in early September, but ours didn’t emerge until a full month later. The “spider” lilies had apparently decided to make a grand entrance a little later than usual, and what an entrance it was! Almost overnight it seemed that clusters of them have sprung up magically from the earth, gloriously red and robust. They are everywhere —  in yards, in ditches, and even in the “neutral ground’ between the northbound and southbound lanes of Highway 165 — random clumps valiantly defying the mowers.

I don’t remember ever seeing spider lilies when I was a child. I’m sure that their bright red color and most interesting and complex bloom would surely have impressed me had I seen them. Perhaps they were there in Tensas Parish back then, but just not where I might have seen them.

It wasn’t until I made my home as a young adult in Monroe that I first remember seeing this fascinating plant. I remember thinking at the time that it reminded me a little of asparagus —  he blooms springing up with amazing speed directly from the earth on bare stalks without first displaying any foliage. It still is something of a surprise to me when I do spot the first ones each fall. They are also known as “surprise” lilies, no doubt because they often appear in seemingly random spots without warning!

Many Types, Many Colors   

As it turns out, research shows that our familiar red spider lilies are not the only ones there are. It seems that the spider lilies have different types (and therefore present in different colors) according to the region in which they grow. All of them belong to the Amaryllis family, but they do vary in type. 

To our north, Lycoris squamigera is the type that would be seen most often. It is described as one of the hardiest of this perennial bulb plant (enduring those long, cold winters ensures that only the hardiest will survive to bloom another year). The flowers are in shades of pale pink, and appear quite dainty. These have acquired a second name, a nickname of sorts — “Naked Ladies”. 

I have also been told that in south Louisiana, the pale yellow spider lilies occasionally to be found there are also given this name. At least one gardener in Ouachita Parish, a former student of mine from one of the English 309 classes, proudly called me to come to her home some years ago to show me a pale yellow spider lily that had just bloomed. She was most proud of her “Naked Lady”!

Even though there are exceptions, here in the South, Lycoris radiate is the most frequently seen type. Its fiery red blooms herald a welcome change of seasons for us. 

The feathery “look” to the bloom in some ways does resemble a spider; hence, the common name. Another nickname for these lilies is “Hurricane Lily” because they bloom during the peak hurricane season. 

In other geographic regions, botanists report that these lilies may produce flowers in shades of peach, yellow, orange, coral, and white. Some professionals have even successfully hybridized them for sale. One particularly popular one presents a pink bloom with light blue “tips”.

Lilies That Roam . . . 

I’m not sure that I have ever known anyone who has intentionally used spider lilies in a single planting bed as part of their landscape and had success doing it. If they had tried, my experience shows that this roving little lily would surely have escaped such an “ordered” confinement, surprising the gardener with a new set of plants where he least suspects it — often in the middle of his perfectly manicured lawn . . . 

I once tried to move some from our home in town —  where they grow at random throughout our yard — up to our lake house on Lake Bartholomew. I put them in a bed around a tree near the lake bank and hoped that they would grow. They certainly did, to my delight, but not where I had intended. Instead of making a nice little “statement bed”, my bulbs decided to create a “wandering path”! To say that spider lilies are not about to give up their element of surprise is an understatement.

It is also something of an understatement to say that these little jewels are easy-to-grow. They pretty much take care of themselves and seem to prefer to be left alone to wander as they please, delighting us with their sudden appearance. 

Professional plant folks give some insight into these mysterious lilies. Many say that spider lilies especially enjoy being dry during the summer, their dormant season. They also seem to prefer semi-shade, but I have some that thrive in full sun. Because their bulbs are toxic, spider lilies aren’t bothered by either hungry deer or pesky pests. This gives them an extra bit of protection that many other bulbs don’t enjoy.

Lilies and Legends 

Where did these lovely lilies come from? As it turns out, their trip to our yards involved many countries and took lots of time. 

Most botanists believe that the original form of Lycoris radiata developed in China. The lilies were later introduced into Japan from China through rice cultivation. Interestingly, these lilies were planted around rice paddies and homes as a way to deter rodents and insect pests. 

In 1854, Japanese ports were opened for trade with the United States, and that’s apparently how we got the lily. The story goes that a ship’s captain, Captain William Roberts, brought back 3 bulbs which he gave to a relative to plant. The gardener noted that the plant wouldn’t bloom until after fall rains began, providing what is believed to be the first written botanical observation of this foreign lily in America. 

They also observed that the blooms and foliage of these lilies never presented at the same time. A long bloom stalk emerged, but foliage didn’t appear until the flower had wilted and the stalk had disappeared. Only then did the foliage appear, a low-growth mass that worked as a nice ground cover until it, too, disappeared with the coming of summer and the dormant phase. 

Some Chinese writings describe the bright red flowers as flowers that grow in Hell. Scholars researching this believe that this description came from observations that the lilies often bloomed near cemeteries. As a result, they are often called “Corpse” flowers. 

Buddhist documents show that the monks often used them in ceremonies at ancestral tombs as a way to show respect. They believed that the lily was essential to the rebirth cycle. It was also believed that if one smelled the lily’s scent at a funeral, memories of the departed would be remembered one last time.

In China, the spider lily is still thought of as a separation symbol, and bouquets of the lovely lilies are never given to sweethearts! They believe that when one meets a person he will never see again, the lilies will grow at that place the following year.

As with nearly every unusual thing, a number of legends have evolved concerning these magical lilies. My personal favorite is a Chinese love story that forms the genesis for the legend. Two elves, Manju and Saka, were assigned to guard the lily, but not at the same time. Manju was to guard the flower stage; Saka, the foliage stage that followed. 

Curiosity got the better of the two, and each sought to see the plant in the other form. They met each other and fell in love. Because they had disobeyed orders, they were separated and cursed. Their punishment: neither could see the other throughout eternity, just as the bloom and the foliage on the lily would never meet.

Most flower lovers find these lilies beautiful, or at least interesting. Wherever those mysterious lilies appear, take a moment and enjoy them. The flowers will soon be gone for another year, but their magic will live on!

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