Arachnophilia

Posted by & filed under Perennials.

A group of Red Spider Lily (Lycoris radiata)Today I am hiding out with some friends right behind the guide hut at the bottom of the Japanese Garden.  The red spider lilies are standing on the edge of the road, screaming to be seen while I sit quietly behind them.  This is their time for some attention, so I will let them have it.

The red spider lily (Lycoris radiata) is really an amazing plant.  This perennial bulb blooms in late August or September.  When it is good and ready, a single stem will surprise everyone by poking its head out of the bare ground.  Within a few days, the stem has grown to a little over a foot tall and features a cluster (or umbel) of red flowers.  Each flower is a trumpet, where the petals peel back to allow the long stamens and single pistil to blare forth.  The stamens are so long they look like spider legs, giving rise to the flower’s common name.  However, people don’t count very well, because there are not eight stamens. 

The flowers live for only a few weeks.  Once they fade and the stems wither, then the leaves decide it’s their turn to come out and play.  The leaves are 4-6” long and only a 1/4” wide.  They last the entire winter, dying to the ground in the spring.  The bulb is Red Spider Lily (Lycoris radiata)dormant in the summer.  When it blooms, the flower starts the cycle again.  Because the flower comes out without the leaves it is sometimes called a Surprise Lily.  They have also been called British Soldiers because a row of them looks like the red coats of old days.  The summer blooming lavender-colored Lycoris (Lycoris squamigera) is sometimes called a Naked Lady.  Those common names are way better than dull old Latin names.

The red spider lilies are in the Japanese Garden because that is their native land. They arrived in the US when a Captain William Roberts, who was sailing on one of Commodore Matthew Perry’s ships in the 1850s, brought some back to his wife, Lavinia, in New Bern, NC in 1858.  The dried bulbs were planted, but did not bloom in her garden until the Civil War.  That must have been a great sYellow Spider Lily (Lycoris aurea)urprise.  From there, these bulbs were spread across the American South and are common plants at many older homes.

The spider lilies are not just in the Japanese Garden.  We have large, non-scary clusters of these red spiders blooming in the Sunken Garden and Fragrance Garden.  The red flowers are a nice compliment to the red fruit of the crabapple hanging overhead in the Sunken Garden.

Naked Lady (Lycoris squamigera)There are other types of Lycoris in the Garden.  Yellow spider lilies (Lycoris aurea) are hiding behind the terrace wall in the Japanese Garden, ready to crawl onto unsuspecting diners at the café.  In the Sunken Garden, white spider lilies are hiding shyly around the corner while the naked ladies cavorted in the middle of the flower beds earlier this summer.

White Spider Lily (Lycoris shaanxiensis)Now is the time to come see them.  In a few weeks, the red spiders will scurry back underground, leaving a just a few green leaves as their legacy for the winter.

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