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What is Hymenocallis?

By Terrie Brockmann
Updated May 16, 2024
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The plant group Hymenocallis is one of the genuses of plants belonging to the amaryllis family. A bulbous plant, it is native to parts of the southern United States and the tropical Americas, depending on the species. People often call it the spider lily because the corona resembles a spider's body, and the spindly flower petals look like its legs. Growers plant some of species of Hymenocallis directly in gardens for summer or early fall blooms and often raise other species almost exclusively in greenhouses or as indoor plants for their winter blooms.

There are more than 60 species in the Hymenocallis genus of the amaryllidaceae family, and most common of the Hymenocallis flower colors range from white to pink or light purple. All of the species in the Hymenocallis genus have flowers that bloom at the end of a leafless stalk. The stalks rise directly from the bulb and bear flowers either singularly or in clusters. Typically, the flowers have a corona, which is an outgrowth of the stamens united to form a tube or cup. In most of the species, the flower petals emerge from behind the cup-like corona.

One of the Hymenocallis plants that is native to the southern US is the alligator lily, or H. palmeri. This lily grows naturally in open pines, savannas, or marshy areas. Another semi-aquatic Florida native is the H. puntagordensis, or small-cup spider lily, which growers often raise for its long tube-like corona and spidery petals.

The Texan spider lily, or H. littoralis, is native to southern Mexico and parts of Central America. Other common names for it are the beach spider lily and Shinners spring spider lily. The lily is about 24 to 36 inches (60 to 90 cm) tall and bears a five- to seven-inch (14- to 17-cm) long flower tube that has an attractive yellow center and vanilla scent. Growers raise it as a summer bloomer in the garden or as an aquatic plant.

The H. coronaria is an aquatic lily requiring a swift, shallow current. It stands about three feet (about 1 m) tall and has distinctive blooms. Generally, the plant grows naturally in Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama, where people call it the Cahaba lily. In other areas, the common name is Shoals spider lily. Damming of the rivers threatens its survival, and areas such as the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge are trying to preserve some stands of the lily in its natural habitat.

People refer to the species H. calathina, a summer bloomer from parts of South America, as the basket flower or spider lily. When a gardener buys a plant with these names, he or she needs to be careful. Basket flower is also a common name for Centaurea Americana, and the name spider lily refers to many plants, including the Lycoris radiata and L. aurea. The H. calathina, also called the spider lily, has a white flower with a green-striped, funnel-shaped corona that has a fringed crown and a long thread-like stamen. Another lily that people sometimes call a spider lily is the H. narcissiflora, often nicknamed the Peruvian daffodil, describing the cup-like flower perfectly.

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Discussion Comments

By Lostnfound — On Jul 25, 2014

We called them surprise lillies and I really want some for my yard! I want to put them around the edge of the yard, next to the curb. I've seen them in other yards, and I love them. They just come up all at once (hence the name "surprise" lily) and then they're gone in a couple of weeks. But I love them.

Apparently, they're very easy to grow, which is good, since I don't exactly have a green thumb.

I'm going to see if I can find some bulbs locally, and if not, I'm ordering some online, if that's what I have to do. These are such attractive flowers and I'd love to have some.

By Grivusangel — On Jul 24, 2014

The Cahaba lily is beautiful. It has a very limited range and habitat, and it's a precious resource. It's a native plant, and Alabama is one of the few places it grows. I think the Cahaba lily should be the Alabama state flower instead of the camellia which, although a nice flower, is not native in any way to the state. And it doesn't even grow well statewide. It's not very cold-tolerant.

The Cahaba lily is a delicate, white lily that would be perfect for Alabama's state flower. So, they didn't like the goldenrod because they said it was a "weed." So why not the Cahaba lily? It's native and it's gorgeous!

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