Hurricane Lilies on Schedule

— Written By Peg Godwin and last updated by
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I have been closely watching as the green stems of the hurricane or surprise lilies have emerged from bare ground and continued to grow to almost two feet tall.

Plants in the genus Lycoris have many common names including: hurricane lily, resurrection flower, surprise lily, magic lily, naked ladies, spider lilies, British soldiers. There are more than 20 known species of Lycoris which produce a wide variety of flower colors. The red spider lily is currently attracting attention with its 2 inch flowers. The flower parts have interesting shapes including strap-like curvy petals and stamens as well as exceptionally long stamen that resemble spider legs. The common name of the spider lily comes from this characteristic.

The history of this bulb in the US dates back to 1854 when a fleet of US Navy’s first steam powered ships opened the ports to Japan. Aboard one ship was Captain William Roberts who had horticulture interests. In Japan, Captain Roberts acquired 3 bulbs of a plant with red spidery type flowers. He brought the bulbs back to his home garden in New Bern where they eventually thrived. His niece described the bulbs as being “in such a dry condition that they did not show signs of life until the Civil War”. From the small beginning in the US, this bulb has been appreciated and steadily passed along. The red spider lily is considered an heirloom plant where it has been spread across the southern US.

The red spider lily has been cultivated since ancient times in China and Japan. In Japan, Lycoris was planted along the edges of rice paddies to discourage mice because of the toxic alkaloid poison, lycorine that is present in the bulbs. China is growing Lycoris in plantations to harvest and extract another compound, galantamine found to treat Alzheimer’s dementia.

Red spider lilies are known for being tough, standing up to drought and summer heat. Foliage needs at least a half-day of full winter sun to thrive. They perform well when planted under deciduous trees where they appreciate the sun. They are low maintenance plants that only need to be divided every few years as they readily multiply producing new bulb offsets. Propagate by dividing the clumps as the foliage dies back.

The narrow blue-green strap-like basal leaves emerge as the flowers fade. Silver stripes down the length of the leaves help differentiate the foliage from liriope. The foliage persists all winter then dies back in spring or early summer. Lycoris leaves and roots are toxic, so deer and rodents leave them alone but butterflies love the flowers.

This year’s flowers are announcing the arrival of Hurricane Matthew to the southeastern US as well as a break in the summer heat. Each bulb can produce 1 to 4 flower stems that last about 2 weeks. They are an excellent cut flower and a great addition to the garden.