Each fall right at the time of the equinox splashes of brilliant crimson appear along the roadsides and rice patties of southern Japan. These are the flowers of the red spider lily, Lycoris radiata. Like many plants associated with Japan and its people, this flowering bulb is another transplant from China. In Japan it has become culturally significant for religious, cultural, and even practical reasons. Like many members of this small genus, it has an odd genetic history and apparently much of its distribution is the result of human hands.
By the 2nd or 3rd week of September, the flower stalks of this plant arise to the height of 30-50 cm and are crowned with a circular cluster of bright red flowers. These are indeed spidery in appearance since all of the flower parts are relatively thin and long. The sepals and petals are essentially identical in shape in size and recurve backward. Their margins are either flat or slightly undulating and are 4-6 cm long and about 1 cm wide. The pistol and stamens are long, curving upward in graceful arcs, each between 6-8 cm long. As the flowers age the red color fades a bit and pink striations form giving them a peppermint striped appearance.
The flowers fade within a week or so, and almost immediately new leaves emerge from the subterranean bulbs. The leaves look much like a daffodil’s and are a dark green color with a hint of blue. They take some time to form but eventually can reach up to 30 cm or more and are 1-2 cm wide. These persist all winter long, fading sometime in late spring. As mentioned, these plants grow from bulbs that are typical looking with a scaly outside covering and are anywhere from 5-8 cm long and 3-5 cm wide. They readily form offsets, so plants left alone quickly form large clumps. Virtually all plants found in nature exist as clumps rather than as single individuals.
This common plant is found in the warmer regions of Japan, but in fact is a transplant from China. It is also found in Korea where it is equally exotic. Habitats range from fields, roadsides, river banks, to bright wooded groves, but it is most commonly found on the berms of rice patties in full sun. It has naturalized in some parts of the southeastern USA, but I suspect these plants were put there by people years ago and persisted after their owners left.
What a strange plant this is in nearly all respects. One common English name for Lycoris is “surprise lily” since they come out of the ground in mid to late summer with gaudy clusters of flowers perched on top of leafless stalks (for the same reason they have earned the name “naked lady”). The leaves follow the flowers after they fade and last all winter long only to go dormant in late spring. What is more curious is that virtually all Japanese and Korean plants are sterile triploid plants that can only be reproduced through vegetative propagation and presumably were distributed over a wide geographic region by humans exclusively.
Here is a video of L. radiata and L. albiflora in habitat along the Inunaki River near Fukuoka City, Kyushu, Japan: