Grandmama loved her spider lilies and bragged on them every year. One of my earliest recollections was her explaining to me how the spider lilies always signal the ending of summer and the coming of fall, which was her favorite season. I took the picture above this morning. This is a flower that popped up in my yard in the last few days. However, this beautiful flower has an interesting history.

The red spider lily (lycoris radiata) is believed to have originated in China and Korea. Centuries ago it was transplanted to Japan and has become culturally important in that country. The plant came to this country in 1854 when Captain William Roberts was part of the expedition that established trade between Japan and the United States. Being an amateur botanist he brought back three bulbs. Now this delicate flower can be seen all over the South.

The stalk, leaves and flowers of the spider lily are mildly poisonous but the bulbs are very poisonous. In Japan these flowers are planted routinely around the edges of rice paddies where they are thought to repel insects and rodents. These flowers almost certainly originated in China. However, the original spider lily from China was a fertile plant whereas the spider lily that grows in Alabama today is a sterile hybrid. Most of its distribution is thought to be a result of human interaction.

Spider lilies bloom in the fall, near the time of the autumnal equinox. In Japan they are associated with death. The Japanese word for the spider lily means “other shore,” a way of describing the afterlife. They are thought to guide the dead on their way to what we would call Heaven. They symbolize loss but also transformation. The flowers and leaves never occur together. The leaves come out after the flowers have faded and last all winter. According to a Chinese legend the flowers were guarded by an elf named Manju and an elf named Saka guarded the leaves. Since the flowers and leaves never occurred at the same time the elves could never meet. But because they were curious about each other they arranged a meeting. This angered the Gods who then separated them for all eternity.

Like Grandmama, I enjoy the passage from summer to fall, which is also my favorite season. I also enjoy the annual blooming of these beautiful red flowers. And I’ll bet that when my time comes to pass over to that far shore the spider lilies will be there to line my path. I also bet that Grandmama will be there to greet me.

Lynn Jinks is an attorney with Jinks, Crow & Dickson, P.C.

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