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:
The probable origin of these sterile plants was China some centuries past, where the plants are fertile and represented by the smaller variety pumila – another odd twist in this unusual plant’s history. A creamy yellow flowered plant is often seen flowering alongside the normal red form, L. albiflora. Much speculation has surrounded this plant with some believing it just a variety of L. radiata while others suggesting it is a hybrid with that species. After DNA testing and hybridization experiments, the plant has been determined to be indeed of hybrid origin and a sterile diploid. The other species in this cross appears to be L. traubii, a yellow flowered endemic of Taiwan and Japan, and closely allied to L. aurea.
Lycoris radiata is nearly always found within eye-shot of rice patties, and is thought to have been planted in times past as a deterrent to rodents since the bulbs are poisonous. The flowers ignite the patties with a hot electric red precisely at the onset of the fall equinox and the full ripening of the yellowing rice. The image this produces is startling. Although everyone seems to like this flower, few grow it in their gardens while other Lycoris species, especially L. aurea, are frequently seen in private yards. One reason I’ve heard for this is that the flower is so red that it would be unlucky to grow them at home – undoubtedly a result of its association with dead relatives, making it an undesirable garden flower. Interestingly, farmers rarely cut these flowers when mowing the berms in which they grow – rather they cut around them. Regardless of its origins and myths surrounding it, this is one of Japan’s hallmark seasonal flowers, and will no doubt grace Japan’s rice patties for years to come.
It’s Japanese name is higanbana, meaning “the other shore flower”, from the Buddhist term higan (“other shore”) and Japanese bana meaning “flower”. “The other shore” is Nirvana, where earthly matters are “blown out” and replaced with enlightenment and nonphysical existence. Since L. radiata happens to bloom during ohigan, a time when people travel to their ancestor’s graves, it is associated with the dead, and to a lesser extent the autumnal equinox. Because higanbana blooms without leaves, is blood red, often grows near graveyards, and flowers exactly at the time of ohigan, its flowers are thought to be the departed souls who are on their way to “the other shore”. It is also said that the souls are being guided by the flowers to paradise. Another Japanese name for it is manjushage, which is a flower found “in paradise” and derived from Chinese legend. The stories spun around this flower are nearly endless.
In the west Lycoris species have been given a wide variety of names, including spider lily, surprise lily, naked lady (though this is most associated with L. squamigera), resurrection lily, hurricane lily (AKA storm lily), and cluster amaryllis. The genus is indeed in the Amaryllis family and one quick look tells that tale. The name Lycoris is that of a Greek goddess, but also apparently was a real person as well and lover to Roman statesman, including Mark Antony and Marcus Junius Brutus.
I’ve found this to be an easily grown plant once it gets established. After moving (even freshly dug ones) they tend to flower poorly the following year, or not at all. Usually by the second year they have settled in and will put on a good show however. Lycoris bulbs that have been dried for a long time (such as those in stores) take even longer to flower. Unlike daffodils, they detest being divided and thus should be allowed to clump if you want to see their flowers.
They prefer quite a bit of moisture, although I’d avoid keeping them wet – just as likely, they do not appreciate dry conditions. Any decent garden soil should do fine, but the reaction should be acidic. In Japan they grow in rich volcanic loam. While plants will live and even flower in bright shade, their flower stalks will be weaker and flop down. Full sun is ideal, and in these conditions they will become large clumps in time. This is a stunning fall flower for southern temperate climates, USDA cold hardiness zones 7-9.
Red spider lily – surprise lily – higanbana: no matter what you call it, Lycoris radiata is a distinctive plant that demands attention, especially when in flower. If you have a sunny, warm garden with not too severe winters, I recommend trying this one.