Heirloom white spider lilies

Pictured are heirloom white spider lilies.

Love getting stumped on plant identification questions, but sometimes I’m driven around the twist, occasionally left high and dry.

If I can’t immediately nail a photo from experience, I just scratch my head and get down to research. If uploading it to my phone’s plant ID app doesn’t pan out, I make educated guesses on the internet or browse through plant books. My last resort is a back-and-forth email avalanche with like-minded horticulture friends; flummoxing one another is a favorite pastime.

But now we’re all stumped on a plant name that came from folks who collect antique glassware. It is so far found only in a reference to a series of obscure American-made glass objects from the mid-1700s, and in an 1835 newspaper ad from Natchez that listed, among other things, “greenhouse plants, dahlies, camelias, jaconies, lilies and a large assortment of garden seeds.”

Sure, we know that dahlias was misspelled. But what the heck are jaconies? Neither my expert garden history friends nor I can unearth anything like that, anywhere.

We figure it was a common plant’s long-ago folk name. After all, this was just when plants were first being given standardized names by a guy named Linnaeus, when hostas were also called funkias.

Course, this doesn’t make it any easier for modern plants. For decades I’ve enjoyed Granny’s late summer-blooming red spider lilies, knowing full well that Aunt Mamie called them hurricane lilies; they’re also known as resurrection, magic or equinox lilies. Or even naked ladies, which is what I call the related, bigger pink summer blooming species.

There are several members of this tribe, all known in Latin as Lycoris (thanks, Linnaeus); the big, summer flowering pink one is L. squamigera, the smaller fall red one is L. radiata. Whatever. I mean, by 1854, when the first three bulbs were introduced into North Carolina by a seafaring botanist, the Japanese already had over a thousand local names for the same red flower.

Now spread over the entire South, often found around abandoned old house sites, it is one of our most treasured late summer blooms. Its clump of striped monkey grass-like leaves comes up in the fall and dies down in late winter, and the flower stalks appear, completely leafless, after a good rain in August or September. And squirrels and voles won’t touch the bulbs.

By the way, the best time to dig and transplant them is when they are blooming, when you know where they are, just when their roots are just starting to grow but before leaves appear. With permission, of course. Replant immediately, don’t let them dry out.

To confuse things a bit more, in addition to the common red one, I grow a nearly white one with blushes of apricot pink, a rich golden yellow one and a rosy pink one with pale lavender blue streaks. If you want to see some of these variations, go online to plantdelights.com and type in the search box Lycoris. You’ll find pale yellow, rusty orange, peach, coral, rose pink, and bicolor or peppermint kinds, including white or pink with red stripes, and even red or pink with blue tips.

There’s a fellow close to Jackson who grows and sells big bulbs of the red ones through the Mississippi Market Bulletin, a Department of Agriculture and Commerce publication that offers all sorts of hardy locally grown herb plants, daylilies, elephant ears, gladiolus, cannas, mums, iris, fig and pomegranate shrubs, catalpa trees and much more. It’s online.

Meanwhile, if anyone has jacony plants, or knows where I can find one, I’d sure like a start for my garden.

• Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to rushingfelder@yahoo.com.

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