Stephen F. Austin State University

The Illuminating Crown of the Lycoris Radiata, the Red-Spider Lily (November 2011)

The Illuminating Crown of the Lycoris radiata, the Red-Spider Lily
By Justin Robinson

Walking with my children on an early-October afternoon, I can see that all the signs an East Texas autumn are here. We have skitsofrantic temperature extremes, the dead leaves of drought falling, the closure of the local farmers' market "'til next season" and the beautiful Lycoris radiata gleaming a bright salmon-red crown.

Fond of this area bulb, I teach my son and daughter, two and three years-of-age respectfully, to look for the flower of what is commonly called the red-spider lily. In mine and my neighbors' yards, it heralds ablaze the end of one season and the beginning of another yet to be lived. It's wavy, narrow segments curl inwards, while the longer stamens project outward to proclaim the desire for life to continue through pollination, even while all around it appears to be dying.

This glorious red flower speaks the language of passion in its bloom, and the warning of poison in its bulb. None could be better suited for its namesake than this one, christened after the beautiful and seductive, Lycoris, the Roman actress and mistress of Marc Antony. As a mime, Lycoris performed barefoot, with no elaborate costumes, as she pantomimed. The simplicity of her gaze as she twirled her dance was enough to entrance audiences, and her soldier lover.

But the citizens of Rome could not envision her as one to be placed with respect. Lycoris was a sharp contrast for Roman society as she rode with her lover among the people. A contrast that is also imparted in the red-spider lily as it has the rarity of being a bulb whose flower appears before its leaf, even to the point of the two of them hardly occurring at the same time.

It is this separation, bloom occurring when leaves have fallen and leaves growing when flowers have wilted, that gives rise to various sorrowful legends and traditions in the Orient, where the bulb originated before its naturalization in our own regional yards and ditches. Legends such as, when you see someone that you may never meet again numerous flowers of the red-spider lily will bloom along their path or that one should never give a bouquet of these floral crowns, as it could mean separation from the recipient, or even the ultimate separation of death.

Although it may be a symbol of death, the ruby gem of the Lycoris radiata gleams during a season when all is falling to decay or being harvested away. And, for me, it gleams even brighter when it radiates into smiles on the faces of my two children. Perhaps one day, these same bulbs that we are gazing on will do the same for them as they walk with their own children. Warming and illuminating their hearts, much as it does mine own.