Mystery plant blooms red or orange in late summer

BY JOHN NELSON
Curator USC Herbarium
Posted 9/20/17

This is one of the many plants that make me glad that I live in the South.

It is a member of what is commonly called the amaryllis family (although recently, the scientific trend has been to include the amaryllis family in the lily family), and …

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Mystery plant blooms red or orange in late summer

Posted

This is one of the many plants that make me glad that I live in the South.

It is a member of what is commonly called the amaryllis family (although recently, the scientific trend has been to include the amaryllis family in the lily family), and it is native to China and Japan. It was introduced long ago into the South, and remains popular as a perennial border plant. It strikes me as something of an old-timey garden plant, although I will probably get yelled at for suggesting this!

Often it is seen at abandoned houses in the country, where the plants continue blooming in neglected gardens. It occurs just about everywhere in the Southeast, especially near the coast, although we are not sure whether or not it has truly become part of our flora, as it seems to grow only in places where it was originally planted. However, there is some likelihood that this plant can reproduce by seeds, and it can surely be spread by disturbing the bulbs, from which it grows.

This is a plant that is distantly related to our spectacular spider-lilies, in the genus Hymenocallis. The most well-known spider lily is surely the one called Rocky-shoals spider lily, or Hymenocallis coronaria, a magnificent plant that likes to grow in rocky places within several of our Piedmont rivers. Otherwise, the "old" Amaryllis family is well represented in our gardens, with rain lily (Zephyranthes), daffodils (Narcissus) and milk-and-wine lily (Crinum). Then, of course, we have beautiful amaryllis bulbs to force into bloom by Christmas time. Many of these various "amaryllids" come up from bulbs or rhizomes, and these underground parts can be quite massive, especially on older plants. If you ever do need to dig such a plant, take great care, as you won't want to slice into and injure the underground parts.

Our Mystery Plant has leaves that are dark and green, strap-shaped, and rather inconspicuous: they appear during the summer, without any flowers to see. Because of this, the leaves are probably often mowed over, which is not good for the plant.

Late in the summer, the leaves wither up and disappear, and then the plants bloom. Each plant will produce a single leafless, flowering stalk called a scape, just as you see with a daffodil or amaryllis, with 8 to 10 brilliant red or orange flowers clustered at the top. The flowers are quite spidery, with narrow sepals and petals, and equipped with impressively elongated, colorful stamens. Each flower can produce a seed pod, and these sometimes will develop viable seeds inside.

Blooming usually doesn't take place until the first hint of coolness in the early autumn, or after rains. For this reason, this plant has been associated with hurricanes. Now we just had a serious hurricane, Irma, which was quite destructive in many places, and dropped a lot of rain. We are fortunate in not having any damage at our home. And guess what I saw this morning in my backyard starting to pop out of the ground?

Answer: "Hurricane lily," Lycoris radiata

John Nelson is the curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org, call (803) 777-8196 or email nelson@sc.edu.