Arno KingSpider lilies of summer (and autumn)

With the warm wet weather we have been having, I seem to see spider lilies or Hymenocallis in flower everywhere I look. They always remind me of summer. They are such a part of the local landscape that many people are convinced they are a native species. While it may now autumn, these plants continue to be a feature in our gardens due to the ongoing warm wet weather.

Hymenocallis ‘Tropical Giant’ is the likely correct name of this beautiful spider lily, often mistakenly called Hymenocallis speciosa

With long strappy leaves, most plants resemble agapanthus when not in flower. However the leaves are a darker green in colour and on most species, tend to be held slightly upright and in distinct ranks. This upright leaf arrangement catches and hides falling leaves making them the perfect low maintenance plant under trees with a high leaf drop.

Hymenocallis is a genus of some 70 species with a broad range. This includes the southern United States to the north, down through Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and into the very north of South America.

The exotic white flowers have extremely long, hanging petals with a central staminal cup formed from the membranes of the staminodes. The name Hymenocallis means ‘beautiful membrane’. Unlike agapanthus, they have a long flowering period and at times are so smothered in flowers you can hardly see the foliage. The biggest flush of flowers occurs at the start of the rainy season and then the flowers seem to come in flushes coinciding with very wet periods. Flowers open in the evening emitting their perfume overnight and generally last 2 to 3 days.

Hymenocallis are probably my favourite lilies. They are so tough, undemanding and always look manicured and presentable. Over the years I have amassed quite a few species in my own garden – however like most gardeners, I am always on the lookout for more!

Species can be divided into those that are evergreen and deciduous. The evergreen species are very widely grown in the tropics and subtropics whilst the deciduous species are much more uncommon, being mainly grown in subtropics and warm temperate areas. Many of these deciduous species were briefly included in the genus Ismene.

At least 10 evergreen species and their cultivars are popularly grown in the warmer parts of Australia. The identification of these species is highly confused. Possibly the most commonly grown species is the one known widely as Hymenocallis littoralis. It has narrow dark green leaves which taper to a point and grows to around 700 to 900 high. It is likely this plant is actually Hymenocallis acutifolia. Hymenocallis littoralis is a semi aquatic species whilst Hymenocallis acutifolia is a much hardier more drought tolerant species.

Hymenocallis ‘Tropical Giant’ grows to about one metre high

The other widely grown species is known as Hymenocallis speciosa. Hymenocallis speciosa it certainly is not, for this is a smaller species from South America with broad leaves and distinct petioles. The plant appears to be the species commonly known overseas as Hymenocallis ‘Tropical Giant’. It is believed to have originated in the Caribbean area and is now presumed to be extinct in the wild. This is a really good reason for gardeners to grow it in cultivation.

The flowers are very similar to the plant known as Hymenocallis littoralis, but larger. The brighter green leaves are longer but also broader in relation to their length and do not have tapered tips. Plants can grow 900 to 1.2m in height.

Hymenocallis caribaea’s variegated form looks great even when not in flower

Very commonly grown in the tropics, Hymenocallis caribaea has shorter, more upright leaves than the plants noted above and seems to perform best in full sun or bright shady locations. In recent years a variegated clone having leaves with broad cream margins and a central grey band has become very popular. It definitely makes a statement in the garden whether in flower or not.

Hymenocallis tubiflora, one of my favourites, has short, broad leaves & elegant, spidery white flowers

Hymenocallis tubiflora is one of my favorites. Introduced from Hawaii some 10 years ago by Bruce Dunstan, it is a small plant with short, broad, paddle-like leaves that tend to lie close to the ground. The elegant spidery flowers have very narrow petals that recoil on themselves. This is a very exotic looking plant and a great understorey in a tropical themed garden. You will see mass plantings of this lily in the National Orchid Garden in Singapore. It can die down briefly in cooler areas.

The great thing about these Spider Lilies is that they are so tough and will grow in full sun to quite deep shade (although they flower less freely). This makes them great for low maintenance gardens where they can be established under newly planted trees, yet will continue to grow as the trees become large and provide dense shade. Few other plants will perform in these conditions.

To get the best from your plants, divide them every 5 to 10 years and replant in freshly dug soil enriched with compost, ground rock mineral fertiliser and composted animal manure. These plants look great ‘en masse’ so plant out large numbers for some spectacular displays. Foliar feed plants under vigorous trees.

Your plants don’t flower? Most likely:

  • too much shade
  • your plants are starving and need a feed
  • the area is too dry and/or plants need supplementary watering

Hymenocallis littoralis

The 2 species known as Hymenocallis littoralis, Hymenocallis speciosa as well as Hymenocallis caribbea are available commercially and can be readily purchased at good garden centres. However if you have some friends with older gardens, you may be able to dig up some plants yourself for free and at the same time reinvigorate the planting. Other species are less common and may need to be sourced from specialised nurseries or from the web.

Hymenocallis species generally appear to be sterile in this country and do not set seed, so they therefore have no weed potential. I suspect we have a single clone of each species and they are self incompatible or otherwise the specific pollinator is not present.

While generally hardy and pest free, plants can develop red patches on their leaves in spring when they burst into growth and the nights are still cool. This is sometimes referred to as a virus however it appears to spread across the leaf like a fungal infection. It is often associated with poor growing conditions – too cool or shady position or cold, wet clay soils. Symptoms can disappear completely when the plants are moved to a more favorable location.

Occasionally crinum lily grub can infest plants. The caterpillars can be very destructive in a short period of time. These infestations are usually associated with poorly growing plants – particularly starved plants in deeply shaded locations.

Looking for some hardy, low maintenance, long lived and exotic groundcover plants for your garden? You can’t go past Hymenocallis. Mass planted in a semi-shaded position under light canopy of trees or palms, they can be attractive in leaf and spectacular in flower. The best thing about
these plants is they free you up to spend time with those plants which need a bit of love and care.

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Arno King

About Arno King

Landscape architect, horticulturist, journalist and keen gardener, Arno is a regular contributor to Subtropical Gardening Magazine. Based in Brisbane, Arno grows a wide diversity of unusual plant species and has particular interests in growing edible plants in creative settings and biological and organic gardening. Brisbane, Queensland

26 thoughts on “Spider lilies of summer (and autumn)

  1. renee st.claire on said:

    I really enjoy your website. Thank you for your tips Arno.Siam tulips…my favorite! Imagine my surprise when I saw a vast array of them at Home Depo this year. All shades of pink, white, etc. Also very reasonably priced. Needless to say, I made at least 10 trips buying more than my fair share of them. I was told that they were not selling well. I live in Tallahassee,florida and we can get cold snaps in the winter. Many tropical plants don’t survive, but the Siam Tulips do. I was secretly pleased to hear they weren’t selling and went back to buy more! Happy planting.

  2. Jan Watkins on said:

    Hi, I moved into this rental property a few months ago and have had Hippyasterums come up and now this beautiful lilly I’ve never seen one before how beautiful they are.

  3. Veronique on said:

    Hi Arno, just found your website – have bookmarked it to browse through when I’ve got some time.
    I live in Mauritius, and have a lot of trouble finding relevant gardening info for the tropics.
    For instance, yesterday I found about 20 bulbs scattered around my 2 spider lily existing plants – they formed on the flower stalk, fell off, and a few of them have already sent out roots and started to grow. So I’ve moved them all to an empty bed – I just set them on top of the soil instead of planting them, as that seems to be the way they grow naturally here. Other websites I checked stated that the only way to propagate them is to divide existing clumps. So I’ll wait and see!
    Anyway, looking forward to reading more of your articles!

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Veronique

      I’m glad you have enjoyed the website.

      From what you have described, the plant sounds more like a Crinum than a Hymenocallis. Crinum is a related genus and produce these bulbils which often shoot leaves on the plant – just as you have explained. The flowers are similar to Hymenocallis but lack the ‘webbing between the petals.

      Possibly you are growing Crinum mauritianum, a very beautiful Crinum native to Mauritius, which is now listed as being endangered in the wild. I have it growing in my own garden. It is a very sculptural plant with the leaves growing in two ranks and in an upward manner. It produces these bulbils readily following flowering so there is no need to divide plants to propagate them.

      Arno

  4. Matt Bennetto on said:

    I live in Perth WA but I’m unable to get these plants (HYMENOCALLIS ‘TROPICAL GIANT’ GROWS TO ABOUT ONE METRE HIGH) Could you please help me find a way to get this plant in Perth WA?
    Regards
    Matt

    • Hello Matt

      I haven’t spent much time in Perth and don’t know the nursery scene too well over there, however I suspect that both H.’Tropical Giant’ and the plant sold as H. littoralis will both be growing over there as they have been in the country for some 150 years. I find joining local garden clubs or specialist plant societies is the best way to track these plants down.

      It is possible to import plants from the the east coast into Western Australia and you can get more details from Quarantine WA. Larsens Bulbs in Qld regularly sends bulbs to WA once an Approval to Import has been received from the purchaser. Obviously there is a cost involved and it will be cheaper to source locally. Another option is to take a holiday in Broome as you are probably more likely to see these plants up there than in Perth.

      Good Luck

      Arno

  5. ursula peng on said:

    Someone has recently given me a Spider Lily in a pot. Could you advise he how to look after this gift, where to plant it and what should I feed it; I do not know the particular type of lily it is. Many thanks.

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Ursula

      I’m not sure where you live, however if you are living in a tropical, subtropical or frost free warm temperate climate, you may be able to continue growing your spider lily in a pot or plant it out in the garden. In the garden, spider lilies flower best in moist spots in the sun or in semi-shade.

      If you decide to continue growing your plant in a pot, it may be advisable to repot it into a premium potting mix and a slightly larger pot so it has room to grow. Apply a controlled release fertiliser (sold in garden centres, or super markets ) following application directions.

      Locate your potted plant in a semi-shady location outside and keep it well watered over the warmer months. If you live in a cooler area and get occasional frosts during winter you may want to put your plant under cover to protect it from inclement weather.

      Arno

  6. Claudine Dalco on said:

    Bonjour Arnaud
    Still desperate to locate and buy (lots) some Hymenocallis Tubiflora.
    Can you help???
    Claudine

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Claudine

      I have not seen Hymenocallis tubiflora for sale in Australia. However a number of hobbyists grow this plant. I was growing it myself however I believe it may have expired due to the very dry weather we have been having. In Brisbane, it usually dies down for a couple of months during the coldest part of winter, but this year it never reappeared.

      I have heard that the plant is available in Cairns and is sometimes for sale at the plant market. If you know someone who lives up there you may be able to track it down.

      Good luck and let us know if you find a source.

      Arno

  7. ronda letia on said:

    Hi Arno, I have been trying to identify a plant that looks the same as the hymenacallis but mine has never flowered. The leaves on my plant are very fleshy. Are these characteristics typical of Hymenacallis?

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Ronda

      many related plants such as Clivea, Hippeastrum, Agapanthus and Lycoris have similar leaves to the Hymenocallis. However Hymenocllis leaves are generally more fleshy and have slightly more pointed tips.

      If you live in Queensland, or other tropical or subtropical areas, your plant is likely to be a Hymenocallis as these plants are very commonly grown.

      To encourage your plant to flower, move it to a brighter location and feed regularly with a low nitrogen fertiliser.

      Good luck

      Arno

  8. t cunningham on said:

    how and when can i gather the seed from my cahaba lilly.
    last year i gathered three seeds from one plant late in the
    season.unfortunately the ants ate all the others…or can you
    tell me a better way to propagate.

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello t

      I have no experience growing Cahaba lily (Hymenocallis coronaria). It is a threatened plant which grows in fast moving creeks in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. I understand it is a highly specialised plant and is not widely cultivated for this reason.

      Most Hymenocallis are easy to grow from seed which is simple pushed into the surface of a pot full of potting mix and kept moist. Perhaps you can do this inside the house (sunny windowsill) or in a shade house.

      Regarding growing these plants on into adulthood, you may need to ask some local gardeners or at the botanic garden in your area for further tips.

      Good luck

      Arno

  9. Lawrie Smith on said:

    Hi Arno,
    You will recall we discussed problems with my ‘heritage’ Hymenocallis speciosa a few weeks ago. The bulbs were rotting due to poor soil, so I relocated them to containers in quality potting soil and in a more shaded location. The foliage is still yellowing and rot is evident at the crown of the bulb. Do you recommend any particular fungicide. I think I should repot again in a much more sandy mix and place in more sunny filtered morning sun position?? I’d value your recommendations as these bulbs have been in our family for over 60 years and I don’t want to lose them – four of the ten have already succumbed
    Cheers LawrieS

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Lawrie

      I’m sorry to hear of the problems you are having with your Hymenocallis plants. I have grown H. speciosus for many decades and regarded it has being indestructible and one of the hardiest plants we can grow in South East Queensland.

      I generally avoid fungicides in the garden due to cross collateral damage to beneficial micro-organisms. For this reason I tend to cut out rotting areas and treat cuts with sulphur or manuka honey.

      I think your suggestion of potting plants in a free draining media and placing in a warm, semi-shaded location is a good one. Once plants start to grow, I would use a foliar fertiliser composed of one half liquid fish manure and half seaweed (such as Powerfeed and Seasol) applied at 1/2 recommended rates.

      Good luck with your plants.

      Arno

  10. Brett on said:

    Hello. I have a white spider Lilly but find every day I have yellowing leaves that feel soggy. Like they’re rotted. I pull them off, maybe 2 or 3 leaves every day. My soil is clay-ish. Do you think this is just over watering?

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Brett
      I’m not sure where you live or which Hymenocallis you are growing, so I will try and do the best I can to help you.

      Most Hymenocallis are very tolerant of both very wet and quite dry conditions. Evergreen Hymenocallis are generally more widely grown in tropical, subtropical and warm temperate Australia. They have less defined bulbs, and while termed evergreen, will die down if conditions are very dry. Most of these species come from areas which can be quite wet, if not inundated over the wet summer months. The only time I have seen leaves go yellow and soggy is when Crinum Lily Grub has attacked the bulb. Usually this is associated with damaged leaves.

      The other group of Hymenocallis come from the high Andes of Peru and Ecuador. They have much bigger and defined bulbs and die down for part of the year. They also have quite large showy flowers – commonly grown are H. longipetalis, ‘Festilis’, ‘Sulphur Queen’, ‘Advance’. They are more widely grown in Victoria, South Australia and southern New South Wales, but also do well in subtropical areas. They prefer well drained soils, but during the summer growing season enjoy regular watering. They require a dry winter rest and in cooler regions the leaves will be starting to yellow and die off in response to the cooler weather. I am thinking that this may be the plant you are growing, and the reason for the leaves starting to yellow.

      If you live in a cooler area or have soils which are wet and cold over winter, you may benefit from growing these plants in pots and placing them in a sheltered area or in a greenhouse over the winter months.

      Arno

  11. amanda on said:

    Hi! I am having problems with one of my giant spider lilies. I live in Hawaii. The leaves a turning slightly yellow and are getting hard… almost curling up on the sides. It’s really strange since there is a perfectly healthy one right next to it. They are usually so hardy with no problems so I’m really not sure what is going on. Thanks!

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Amanda

      often Hymenocallis can be subject to mealybug infestation. This insect tends to cause the leaves to stunt and curl. It is often associated with stress to the plant – poor nutrition or erratic watering. Peel back the leaves and if you can see white cottony substance, this will be the culprit. You could use an insecticide to kill the mealy bug, but a better long term solution is to ensure your plants nutritional needs are met by applying a general fertiliser (preferably organic or biological) which contains trace elements, preferably as ground rock minerals/rock dust. Also ensure the plants have a good mulching with organic matter. This should rejuvenate your planting.
      Regards

      Arno

  12. Ric on said:

    My rows of spider lilies are drooping, they look a bit sad and flat. The ones down the other ends still are strong healthy and up right. By coincidence the lilies are drooping from the end of one row and the problem looks like it is moving down the row. I’ve not fertilised them since they have been planted 3 years ago, the clusters are quite large. Soil is part red volcanic with lots of vegetable and grass clippings dug in prior to planting. Leaves are dark green and relatively healthy looking, no rust but droop and the plants get watered but not really a great deal. When they flowered last time they looked great. I live in Brisbane Australia.

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Ric

      I’m wondering if the drooping spider lilies is related to the recent heavy rain we have had along with the cooler weather. I find spider lilies do not like cool, wet conditions over winter, and this is exacerbated with cool wet clay, particularly if they are in the shade. Most years we have dry winters and this is not such a problem. With cool wet conditions, the plants seem to wilt and stop growing and they are subject to a number of fungal diseases such as Red Spot (Stagonospora curtisii) and various rusts (Puccinia spp.) which cause lesions and dieback to the leaves.

      In my garden this generally occurs only in the shadiest spots where there is less air movement and I am happy to put up with it for a couple of months, as the plants quickly grow out of it as the warmer weather arrives.

      I find that nutrition is often the key to managing many of these fungal diseases. Plants need adequate levels of key minerals to develop a strong leaf cuticle resistant to fungal penetration. Calcium and Silica are particularly important and often not available in adequate quantities in our garden soils. Apply Calcium in the form of garden lime at 1 level handful per square metre. If you have an alkaline soil use gypsum instead. To check your soil pH (and assess whether the soil is acid, neutral or alkaline), take a soil sample to your local garden centre for testing.

      Silica can be provided in the form of diatomaceous earth, applied at similar rates. To provide other minerals use a quality biological or organic fertiliser containing balanced ground rock minerals at least 1 month after applying the lime.

      Bulbs generally grow much more vigorously where calcium is readily available and I think you will notice a great improvement in health and vigour of your plants once their nutritional needs are met.

      I am sure your plants will start to grow vigorously once the warmer weather arrives, whether you apply fertiliser or not. In the subtropics we tend to have much higher expectations of plant performance and we demand our plants to look perfect at all times. So relax, I don’t think it is anything to be too concerned about. Hymenocallis are generally regarded as one of the toughest plants to grow in the tropical and subtropical garden.

      Arno

  13. Ann kingsbury on said:

    I moved a bed of red amaryllis last fall that I’ve had there for five years. last week stems started coming up all over and I was pleased yet perplexed that they were going to flower. however, they aren’t amaryllis ! they are all spider lilies !! what the heck is going on? that bed has been there with no new plants for five years. I don’t own another spider lily. how did my amaryllis turn into spider Lilies ?

    • Arno on said:

      Hello Ann

      this is indeed mystery. I do not know of any cases where one plant has turned into another. Could someone else have planted these plants? Could you have misidentified the plants when you moved them?

      Hippeastrums (‘Amaryllis’) and Hymenocallis have very different bulbs, leaves and growth habits, so they are not readily confused even when not in flower.

      You’ve got be completely baffled!

      Arno

  14. Hi,

    I’ve had the same problem…

    I’ve relocated a few months ago and took my spider lilies with me. I had no problems replanting them… I even took the same soil they were planted in with me to make sure they’ll be happy.

    They just bloomed for the first time at the new location… I’ve had these spider lilies for years but now suddenly they turned into agapanthuses…

    Is it actually possible for one plant to change into another?

  15. Averil on said:

    How do I eradicate spider lilies? I have tried roundup and a couple of other but without effect. your help would be gratefully appreciated

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