When September ends in Louisiana, it means that fall is almost here. It means that we are almost done with our oppressive heat. We can look forward to a reprieve from cutting grass. It means we’ve made it through the worst of hurricane season, but only the easiest part of our football schedule.* It means campaign signs and food made with roux. Tomorrow may be the autumnal equinox, but it will still be some time before it truly feels like autumn here. There is one botanical sign that Southerners recognize as a herald for the changing season- Lycoris radiata aka the Spider Lily aka the Hurricane Lily aka the Surprise Lily.
In late August and September these flashy red blooms seem to appear from nowhere. During a time when even the okra and field peas have past their prime and other southern garden plants are waning, stalks 12 – 18 inches tall appear with umbels (plant biology word of the day) of exotic red flowers. At this point, there is not another leaf in sight for this plant’s structure. These perennial bulbs do well in partly shady spots. They burst forth in bloom demanding attention, but then quickly fade into unremarkable green foliage the rest of the year. That’s their surprise; just when you have forgotten about them, they send you a vivid reminder.
Spider lilies are not native to the United States, but imported from Japan in the 1800s. They have naturalized themselves in the southern landscape and can be grown without much effort in USDA hardiness zones 6 – 10. These flowers have been tamed enough to do well in flower beds for a showy albeit brief appearance. Their inherent fragility has not been bred away to make them suitable for the cut flower trade. The genetics of these plants make this a daunting task since the common forms are naturally triploid (three sets of parental chromosomes) and thus sterile.
Their stubborn genetic form may not offer much variety, but they can be propagated by dividing the bulbs. Lycoris radiata bulbs can be purchased (see some of the links below) or more often traded among gardeners and neighbors. A good time for dividing the bulbs is just after they flower, but you may want to go ahead and mark their place while they are blooming so you can find them. And don’t worry about deer or other herbivores eating these beauties from your flower beds- they’re poisonous. Just make sure to keep your small children and pets from chewing on the stalks or bulbs as well.
Of course there are other reasons you may not ever want to use Spider lilies in a bouquet or give them as a gift. For thousands of years, Asian tradition has associated them with death and loss because they appear as the season changes from vivacious summer to declining autumn. They are frequently planted in cemeteries and offered as tributes to the dead. The Japanese name for the plant is ‘higan-bana,’ which can be translated to mean ‘the flower of this life and the next.’ As the month ends, I remember my own September loss with vibrant spider lilies, and I am sure she appreciates them just as much in the next life as she did in this one.
“as my memory rests
but never forgets what I lost
wake me up when September ends”
*I have no comment on the football debacle that I witnessed at Tiger Stadium this past weekend.
References and Links: