A larger cousin to the red spider lily is Lycoris aurea, the golden spider lily. It is bigger in all respects – the flowers, leaves, and bulbs are half again as large as L. radiata. It’s broad trusses of golden orange blossoms always remind me of deciduous azaleas. Their appearance in the fall months is a welcome spot of color at a time when many plants are preparing to go dormant.
In fall, from a fairly large, amaryllis-like bulb growing just below the surface of the ground, fleshy flower stalks sprout. By mid to late October it is in full flower with up to 8 spidery, orange yellow blooms. The tepals are all the same length, have undulating margins, and curve backwards. The stamens and pistol project in a upward curving arc in the opposite direction from tepals, but are usually the same length.
The flowers of L. aurea are held in a circular truss that looks much like a deciduous azalea when seen from above. Each truss can be up to 20 cm across with any given flower about half that size.
After the flowers fade, several somewhat fleshy broad leaves sprout from the bulb. These are finished growing by mid November and are up to 70+ cm long each. They persist through the winter months, finally going dormant in mid spring. The above ground plant remains fully dormant throughout the summer months, until it flowers in October in a leafless state – hence another common name for these plants, surprise lilies.
There is some confusion concerning the naming of this plant and the closely related Lycoris traubii. Sources commonly report L. aurea being a plant of south China, but also having a range extending into parts of Indochina, Taiwan, and southern Japan. L. traubii is considered only native to Taiwan and Japan and for all practical purposes is very difficult to tell apart from L. aurea. The Japanese Ministry of the Environment does not even list L. aurea as a species native to Japan, but does list L. traubii (Kagoshima and Kochi Prefectures, reported extinct in the latter).
L. aurea has been given at least one varietal name, v. angustitepala, restricted to south-central China. Within the species concept of L. aurea all plants seem to be diploid (2n), yet the chromosome count varies between plants with 12, 13, 14, and 16 being commonly cited. It is said that only plants with 2n=14 are fertile. Moreover, it has been suggested that L. traubii may in fact be a local variant of the more widespread L. aurea. Japanese plants of L. traubii are said to be fertile.
Many Lycoris plants have similar and confusing histories. L. aurea has been cultivated for many centuries and it is likely that at least part of the confusion is the result of human tinkering. Plants sold as L. aurea can be of hybrid origin as well, so telling what is what can be confusing.
Regardless of these matters, L. aurea is a lovely flowering bulb. The first time I saw one in north Florida I thought my eyes were deceiving me. It appeared that I was looking at a deciduous azalea, perhaps Rhododendon calendulaceum, on steroids. There were a couple problems with this – first of all, it was late summer, and the flowers were seemingly springing magically from the ground. Any person seeing Lycoris in flower for the first time has a similar experience, hence the common name surprise lily.
Here in southern Japan plants usually flower in October, after L. radiata has finished or is finishing. I have two clones, an early flowering one and another that flowers a whole two weeks later. Of the two, the later flowering clone produces seed while the other doesn’t. I have not tried to germinate these since it is said that Lycoris are ridiculously slow to flower from seed, with a minimum of 5 years needed. This season though, I’m giving them a try.
It is said that Lycoris aurea likes limey soils and a dry, hot summer. While this may be true, the plants I grow stay wet until early August at least. Around the second week of August and into late September the rains back off and the oven turns on in Kyushu with daily highs peaking in the mid 30’s C (~94 F). This period of dry heat is supposed to enhance flowering in this species.
I do not add any lime to their bed either, and the local volcanic loam is definitely acidic in reaction. The plants do like a sunny location, perhaps even more so than L. radiata. Mine are in a spot that gets relatively little sun in the winter months and I’ve noticed they don’t flower as well as plants I’ve seen in full sun here.
New plants can be made through offsets, though recently planted bulbs often go through at least one year of sulking, particularly ones that have been dried and are rootless. This adds to the surprise element, because it is easy to forget you even planted a bulb two years earlier only to have it flower by seeming magic later on. They produce offsets fairly generously. The first bulb I planted has increased to a clump of at least 12 plants, and in a relatively short span of time – around 5 years.
In nature these are plants of subtropical grasslands and forest edges. In Japan they are grown well into warm temperate areas where the soil doesn’t freeze in winter. Still, their soft, succulent leaves are not likely to take truly cold winters. It is likely that USDA cold hardiness zone 7 is their limit without protection.
In Japan L. traubii has been used as an emergency food in times of famine, in particular after WWII. Since Lycoris bulbs contain the toxic alkaloid lycorine, great care was needed to remove it before eating the starchy bulbs. Lycorine has also been used in Asian folk medicine as a diuretic and expectorant, but dosing is a serious problem. Too much of it leads to vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, and possible death by paralyzing the central nervous system.
A far better use for the golden spider lily is as a garden subject. Few plants can give the startling display a well grown Lycoris can, and L. aurea is the king of this genus.