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.
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.
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.
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 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:
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.