Along Came a Spider

Spiders are creepy, crawly little beasties that pop out when you least expect them — Eek! They lurk even in the pleasant, pastoral realm known as the garden. However one rather nice exception that can be found at this time of year is actually a plant — the red spider lily, which doesn’t have eight legs but rather bright, elegant red rays that emanate from beautiful blooms.

The red spider lily is botanically known as Lycoris radiata and is not technically a lily, being more closely related to the amaryllis. Scientific distinctions aside, it is a deer-resistant botanical beauty that, late in the growing season, will delightfully light up a flower border that that has been weathered by the incessant summer sun.

Gardeners unfamiliar with the red spider lily should note that it has a weird growing habit. The strap-like leaves emerge in the fall and persist through the winter, but then they die down in the late spring, leaving nothing to see. However, in the heat of the waning summer, 12 to 18-inch spikes bearing clusters of brilliant red, spider-like blooms magically arise from the baked earth. After the flowers put on their dazzling show, they die down, and the leaves sprout again in autumn to, once more, restart the odd cycle.

The red spider lily is a pleasant surprise that can pop up late in the growing season where you least expect it.

Red spider lilies are ideally planted in mid- to late summer, but unless you go the mail order route, the bulbs aren’t always easy to find for sale during the hottest part of the year. The basic advice here is when you find them, buy ’em and head straight to the garden.

Space bulbs about 6 to 8 inches apart in a sunny to lightly shaded area. The base of the bulbs should be planted about 3 to 4 inches deep. Although they can survive in tough growing grounds, tucking them away in well-drained, loamy garden soil will make them more productive. And adding a little time-release bulb fertilizer at planting time will also give the new plants a jump start into next year.

The plants are tolerant of dry soil in the summer because they are dormant, but when the leaves are actively growing, they should be watered occasionally if the rains don’t come.

Gardeners who are pleasantly surprised by the re-emergence of red spider lilies as their gardens wind down for the summer might also be surprised that these beauties, which originated in the Orient, have a strong North Carolina connection. They were first introduced into the United States by Captain William Roberts, who brought three bulbs back with him to his New Bern home after he sailed on Commodore Matthew Perry’s famous mission to open up Japan’s trade routes in 1854. Not only did these Far East introductions eventually bloom, but they proliferated enough for offshoot bulbs to be given to other gardeners.

As many gardeners in New Bern can tell you, red spider lilies easily naturalize, even to the point of becoming overcrowded, which could lead to a decline in bloom production. For more elbow room — and sustained flower power — the bulbs should be divided every three to five years. This is best done in the early summer when the plants are dormant.

Red spider lilies that have been divided can, of course, be replanted elsewhere in the garden, but why not share the beauty? These dazzlers have been a favorite Southern pass-along plant for more than a century, so any you give away in the years to come will not only perpetuate this hospitable tradition, but will also show others that not all spiders found in the garden need to be greeted with “Eek!”

L.A. Jackson is the former editor of Carolina Gardener magazine. If you would like to ask him a question about your garden, go to his website at:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *