This delicate, ruffled beauty, which bears the scientific name Hymenocallis occidentalis (alternately, Hymenocallis caroliniana), is a late bloomer. It begins its bloom cycle in August-October, depending on the zone of growth, about the time many other bulbs are winding down and storing up fuel for the year to come. It belongs to the broad scientific family Liliaceae, specifically within the amaryllis family, and bears the same long, straplike leaves, which arise from a central bulb and fan out in an opposing pattern. You may find it in some southern gardens, though it is difficult to find a commercial vendor that offers them for sale. You'll find, at the top of the PlantFiles entry, both a link to vendors that offer the bulb for sale periodically (though they may not currently have any in stock), and also a link to other Dave's Garden members who are offering this plant for trade.
This flower is actually native to North America, and can be found mostly in the southeastern states. Many similar flowers in this family can also be found throughout Mexico and Central America, those these are not reflected on the map. Choosing native plants for your garden helps ensure they will thrive, as long as you are in the proper zone.
If you search for the common name, Spider Lily, you will come up with a truly fantastic array of plants. There are varieties of red Lycoris squamigera (also commonly known as Surprise Lily, Magic Lily, or Naked Ladies) that are sometimes called Spider Lilies, as well as a variety of Crinum sometimes referred to as a Spider Lily, Swamp Lily, or River Lily. Both are distantly related to the Hymenocallis occidentalis and the amaryllis family, and share some common characteristics. This only emphasizes the importance of knowing the botanical name for the plant you are seeking!
My husband was recently lucky enough to stumble across some growing in the wild at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, and took these pictures for me. The park is very proud of bringing this bloom back into their woodland areas, after years of park visitors illegally removing the plants to relocate into their home gardens. It still bears the label of "endangered" within the park, though with protection it is making a comeback. It is known to prefer damp, boggy or woody areas, and grows well in partial shade, though it can be prompted to thrive in sunnier locations with a good layer of mulch. It is most common in the southern states, though it can be found as far north as southern Indiana and southern Illinois. PlantFiles lists it as hardy through zone 6a.
The spider lily really is an unusual looking flower. Like its distant relative, the Lycoris squamigera (Surprise Lily, or Naked Lady, which is also in the amaryllis family), it sends up its straplike foliage very early in the season, sometimes in late winter or very early spring. In very hot climates, that foliage may die back and disappear, again like the growth habits of the Surprise Lily. In cooler, moister, or well-shaded areas, the foliage may persist past bloom time. Much later, in late summer, it sends up one or more central bloom stalks, 2 to 3 feet in length, which are topped by an umbrel bearing between 3 and 9 flowers. The blooms are a stunning, brilliant white, similar to the white you'll find in the glowing daturas and brugmansias. I think part of what made them so very appealing to me was the combination of a central cup, with long, graceful filaments that radiate outward around it. The roughly 2 inch diameter lacy-edged central staminal cup, also known as a corona, is surrounded by six long filaments that extend out in a circular pattern from the cup-shaped membrane that connects them. It is this central corona that lends its name to the plant, as Hymenocallis roughly translates to hymen, meaning membrane, and callos, meaning beauty. (p. 78, Wildflowers of Mammoth Cave National Park). The filaments are known as tepal segments (actually 3 petals and 3 sepals), and from the tip of one tepal to the tip of the opposing tepal, the flower may measure up to 7 inches! These long, drooping ribbons dance in the wind, and are quite unlike any blooms I have ever seen. It almost looks more like a bizarre form of daffodil than its actual relative, the amaryllis.
As an added bonus, this flower is extremely fragrant. One source I came across, Niche Gardens, places them within the grouping of night-flowering plants, though I didn't find reference to the blooms opening at night in any other sources. I'm sure the bright white blooms would be a glowing addition to a night-blooming garden, though. The bulbs will slowly multiply, forming a clump which may be divided after bloom time, as the foliage is dying back and they are preparing to go dormant for the winter. Treat them as you would a clump of Surprise Lilies: dig up the clump, and gently separate the bulbs from each other. You can do this using either a knife, or by gently twisting with your hands to break them apart along the natural seams between the bulbs. Replant the bulbs about 4 inches deep, with a sprinkling of bone meal or bulb booster fertilizer if desired, and water in well.
I want to make a special point of asking that you do not remove plants or any other natural resource from any park or wildlife preserve, or anywhere you do not have permission to dig or collect specimens. Too many of our native treasures are disappearing from the wild. I would hope that the members of Dave's Garden would be responsible gardeners, and do their utmost to protect our natural resources where they occur in the wild. Instead, find a reputable source from which to order the bulbs, or arrange a trade with a southern gardener who has these beauties in their garden already.
Our family adheres to the Leave No Trace philosophy, promoted by the Boy Scouts of America:
"Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time."
All pictures for this article were taken by my husband, David Carson, at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. He holds the copyright, and pictures may not be reproduced without permission. Be sure to visit the entry in PlantFiles, here, for many more pictures of this unusual flower!
Map of Hymenocallis occidentalis distribution appears courtesy of eFloras.org, the Flora of North America. As such, it only includes distribution within the United States, and doesn't show its prevalance throughout Mexico and Central America.
Explanation of the scientific name was taken from:
Seymour, Randy. Wildflowers of Mammoth Cave National Park. University Press of Kentucky 1998