Red Spider Lily: Lycoris Radiata – Autumn Umbrellas

red and white spider lily

The red spider lily plant – (Lycoris radiata) raise their red umbrellas in the flower borders of the middle south during September, bringing the vivid coloring to the land.

The umbrella handle is a two foot tall, bearing an umbel 6-1/2 inches wide, of 5 to 7 red trumpet shaped flowers.

The perianth segments or “petals” are crisp and recurved and the flowers have showy filaments and anthers from which they have acquired their common name.

Red Spider Lilies Arrives

Long ago when the port of Japan was opened by Commodore Perry, Captain William Roberts of Bern, North Carolina, brought to his home garden bulbs of Lycoris radiata.

As the years passed the origin of the bulbs was forgotten and as the flowers resembled those of Nerine sarnensis they were called nerines. Years ago some botanist found that the seeds of Lycoris radiata were black and not green like those of nerine and the bulb flowers were properly identified.

Red spider lilies have been grown commercially in this country for many years to supply the domestic market. Lycoris radiata alba (white spider lily), which is said to be cream colored when opening and turning white with age.

It is evidently the Lycoris straminea species, that has straw colored segments having pink keels and scattered red dots.

bloom of Lycoris radiata Curtis Botanical magazine

This lycoris has wider leaves than radiata, and flowers September 1, two weeks earlier than radiata. Among the lycoris family the gold colored Lycoris aurea is the last of the lycoris to bloom, flowering September 25.

All of the lycoris, except Lycoris squamigera (Surprise Lily) or hardy amaryllis, are rated tender. There is nothing tender about Lycoris radiata in areas like Tulsa, as it stands winter cold without mulching or other protection. Lycoris aurea also survives as does Lycoris straminea.

Adapt Well To Sunny Or Shady Areas

Lycoris radiata, straminea and aurea, aside from their excellent garden value in the way of beauty, are remarkable for their adaptation to either a sunny or shady situation (but prefer partial shade), to drought or ample moisture, and their indifference to soil.

Plant During July & August

Plant the spider lily bulbs when they are available commercially, usually during July and August. Home grown bulbs are lifted as soon as their foliage disappears, usually in mid-May.

Shallow planting is a “must” as bulbs planted deeper than with one inch of soil over their tops, will not flower.

After flowering during September, the bulb foliage appears and stays through the winter into May. Lycoris aurea foliage winter kills in Tulsa during late January or early February, but evidently is able to store up enough carbohydrates for its needs, as it flowers despite cold weather.

Companion Plants

As lycoris produces no foliage at blooming time it is a good idea to plant the bulbs among columbines or the hardy orchid (Bletilla striata) to give the red, pink-striped, or golden umbrellas a green setting.

Succession of bloom can be had by planting Lycoris radiata both in sun and shade. When grown in shade it flowers two weeks earlier than in sun. Lycoris straminea (alba) flowers September 1, followed by Lycoris radiata in mid-September and Lycoris aurea a little later.

A Lycoris Lily Fault

The lycoris genus has only one fault… it flowers when it pleases.

For that reason you should plant at least a dozen bulbs of a species so that there will be some flowers each year. As far as can be determined there seems to be no established reason for this lycoris idiosyncrasy.

In the case of Lycoris aurea, which is more reluctant than the others to flower, it may be that there is enough cold to kill the bud but not the bulb. One finds similar behavior in Hymenocallis calathina which although perfectly hardy, must be stored at a warm indoor temperature during winter.

However, in the case of red spider lilies (radiata) and white spider lilies (straminea), it may be that planting the bulbs close to their flowering time prevents blooming.

If bulbs are dug any time during summer they will be found to have no roots and will be as thoroughly dormant as tulip bulbs. Speaking of bulbs, don’t forget planting fall bulbs for spring color.

Lycoris flowers are not only decorative in the garden but are of high value for flower arrangements. No flower, unless it be an orchid, has the keeping qualities of Lycoris radiata and its similar species.


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