One of my favorite childhood memories was watching the first spider lily (Lycoris radiata) bloom spikes magically appear in late August or early September in my parents’ garden. It was a sure sign that fall was on the way. Bulbs collected from my parents’ garden and ruins of my great-grandmother’s garden have been planted in my landscape. My grandchildren now get to experience the same joy in spotting the first blooms.
The genus Lycoris was named for a Roman actress and the mistress of Marc Anthony. They are also known as hurricane lilies because they bloom during the height of hurricane season. Spider lilies have bright red, spidery-looking blooms on spikes 12 to 18 inches tall and appear before the foliage emerges. Even though they are commonly called lilies, they are part of the Amaryllis family and are native to Asia.
The first bulbs were brought to the United States in 1854 by Captain William Roberts, an amateur botanist who was part of the group sent to Japan to establish a trade agreement between the two countries. Although he only brought back three bulbs to America, spider lilies are now found in gardens all over the South. They are cold-hardy in USDA zones 6 to 10.
After the flowers fade, the narrow, strap-like leaves will emerge and remain throughout the winter until warm spring weather arrives. Let the foliage die back naturally to build up the stored food supply in the bulbs.
The bulbs are planted in the fall of the year or divided in early spring as the foliage turns yellow. They will grow in sun to part shade but will bloom best with at least 4 hours of full sun. After planting, it will take several years for the bulbs to become well-established and bloom. Spider lilies are beautiful additions to woodland edges or scattered through shrub and perennial beds.
For more information, see HGIC 1156, Summer- And Fall-Flowering Bulbs.