The aftermath of the recent storms, Ida and Nicholas, have left in their wake insurmountable property damage, power outages, extensive flooding, and loss of life. Our thoughts and prayers go out to those affected both directly and indirectly. Carnage, it seems, is all we see and hear about following these horrific weather events, and rightly so. I struggle to find something positive to offer when we must put our lives back together and seek some sort of normalcy.
The “brainchild” of this article came in the form of what I noticed just off the shoulder of the road underneath a mammoth oak during my recent travels through a “soggy” countryside. They appeared almost overnight. The cluster of fire grabbed my total attention to the point where I pulled over and took a few photos with my iPhone. I suppose there is a silver lining to every cloud, for the red spider lilies, released from the soil due to the recent rains, are in full splendor for all to enjoy. Though you may think this article is about the Red Spider Lily, (Lycoris radiata) in reality, these vibrant specimens were really the inspiration for what began three years ago. I’ll explain.
Digressing back to August 2019, a journey through an almost impenetrable quagmire of flora brought me to my topic of today. Ford and I were exploring a local swamp with no agenda in mind. A road less traveled took us through miles of one of the most pristine hardwood swamps one can imagine. I use the term “road” very loosely for the faint, serpentine path, was overgrown with a multitude of plant species. In fact, several times I stopped the truck so Ford could inspect the condition of the corridor making sure there was no log, drop-off, or other unseen obstacle blocking our way. Cell service was nonexistent, so it would be quite the trek out if we came to a halt.
As we continued to parts unknown, the truck was pelted by a continuous onslaught of deer flies seeking an avenue to find their way to a blood meal… from us. The canopy of the forest almost completely blocked any sunlight from reaching the moist earth. The diversity of plant life emphasized the fact that certain species require very little light, for the mass of vegetation was surely not sparse. The pungent aroma of this swamp reminded me of a line from the song, “Mississippi You’re on My Mind” by our own Jesse Winchester. I believe it goes something like “the heavy sweetness like to make me sick.”
We were almost to the riverbank when Ford noticed, in a small, sunlit glade, several plants with vibrant white blooms, nestled among other species. We contemplated whether we should exit the pickup and expose ourselves to the biting flies following, but our curiosity got the best of us and we had to investigate this novel specimen.
Stalks arising from basal rosettes of strap-shaped leaves, supported terminal clusters of fragrant white flowers with vibrant yellow centers. From each shallow cup, six narrow, curved petals descended from the spectacular flower. We both admired this herbaceous specimen and snapped a few photos. Ford even dropped a pin marking the location of the plants to revisit. We contemplated coming back and digging up a couple of them to replant at our homes. After returning from the swamp, alive, we sent our pictures to several plant taxonomists and we narrowed down the name of the plant of interest. I say “narrowed down” for there is still some speculation on which plant this is. That was three years ago. I’ll move forward to the present.
For the sake of time, let’s just say the name of this plant is the Giant White Spider Lily. I am not 100% certain I am right. I hope the picture of this specimen made it to print with the article for many of you may know exactly which species this is. I’m not sure if this one is of the genus Crinum or Hymenocallis. I tend to think it is Hymenocallis, derived from the Greek word (hymen), meaning membrane and (kalos) meaning beautiful. I’ll let taxonomists help me with this. Due to the effect of the arrangement of the floral parts, let’s conclude that it is indeed a “spidery” daffodil or lily. Whew, I’m glad we finally settled that. So back to the present.
A few weeks ago, Ford and I made our way back to where we thought our original discovery was. Thankfully, the “pin” was still available and as we traveled closer to our destination, we discussed where we were in relation to where the pin was taking us. As soon as we found the open glade, there in full splendor, were several of the lilies in the same location as before. Our mission this time was to take two of them back to our homes to plant and hopefully propagate the species. As we dug, we noticed the bulbs below the soil surface, and we were diligent in our work to take as much of the native soil surrounding this plant as we could to ensure survival. So far, our transplanted specimens are doing fine. There is an abundance of additional plants in the glade that we left in case what we removed didn’t take.
If I am correct in my identification, this entire plant is toxic, especially the bulb. The whole plant contains a variety of alkaloids such as lycorine and tazettine. Eaten by mistake, it can cause vomiting, abdominal pain, severe diarrhea following constipation, irregular breathing, rapid pulse, rising body temperature, and even nervous system paralysis and death. I think it’s safe to conclude this species is for admiring and not for consumption.
Most of the time, I am very confident in my description and identification of a species. I’m still a little stumped regarding this one, are you? I had never noticed this one before in the bottomlands I frequent. Hopefully, if our transplanting is successful, we’ll be able to enjoy the flowers for years to come. If we fail, at least we know where to venture each year in late summer to enjoy for a week or two what nature offers to those who are willing to risk exposure to cottonmouths, biting and stinging insects, toxic flora, and other perils of the swamp. The swamp invites you as well. If you’re unwilling to take the risk, at least you can read about it. I hope you do.
Enjoy the novel treasures hidden in the understory beneath the forest. Who knows what else you may discover as you part the wild nursery? If you find something interesting, I hope you will share. Until next time, enjoy our woods and waters and remember, let’s leave it better than we found it.