Lawrence on Lycoris, the Red Spider-Lily

In her luminous classic A Southern Garden (1942), horticulturalist and Welty correspondent Elizabeth Lawrence (1904-1985) tells the story behind the red spider-lily, Lycoris radiata, one of the South’s most beloved flowering perennials.

Toward the middle of September every garden in the South is filled with the flame-like flowers of red spider-lilies, Lycoris radiata. On the first days of the month, when the bloom of phlox is done and chrysanthemums are not even showing color, the season for flowers seems to have passed. Then the naked scapes of the red lilies spring from bare ground and flower almost overnight, lighting all of the dark corners and even the waste places. In any garden where there are a few, there will soon be many, for the bulbs require shallow planting if they are to bloom, and with shallow planting they multiply rapidly. In my garden (Lawence lived in Raleigh, North Carolina jly) they have increased until they are everywhere—everywhere except in the borders, because there are few flowers of a color that is agreeable with the brilliant nopal red of the stiff long-stemmed lilies. They are most beautiful when planted to themselves, and there cannot be too many of them. The quick color that flares up suddenly as a flame burns out almost as soon. After scarcely more than two weeks they are gone.

Until recently when it was discovered that these red spider-lilies are identical with the Japanese Lycoris radiata, they were known in the South as Nerine sarniensis, the Guernsey-lily. In Herbitaria, vol. IV, Mr. Wyndham Hayward gives an account of how the mistake was at last cleared up. In North Carolina, we might have wondered before, if we thought at all about the flowers that grow in out garden, about the name nerine. For the nerine is a South African genus, and the first red spider-lilies in North Carolina (and probably in this country) came directly from Japan to a garden in New Bern. They were brought to that garden nearly a hundred years ago by Captain William Roberts who was with Commodore Perry when he opened the ports of Japan. The Captain brought three bulbs which were, his niece Mrs. Simmons says, in such a dry condition that they did not show signs of life until the War between the States. The original bulbs have increased and have been passed on until they have spread across the state. They grow as far west as Morganton but do not survive in Asheville. Maryland is the northern limits of their hardiness; near Baltimore they sometimes survive and bloom in sheltered places. The best time to divide the bulbs is after the foliage dies down in spring.

The Mississippi Silver Hull Bean

The Mississippi Silver Hull bean, also known as the crowder pea, is considered an endangered variety of the cowpea or field pea (Vigna unguiculata), the most common variety of which is the black-eyed pea. Cowpeas originated in West Africa and were brought to America during colonial days.

The Mississippi Silver Hull grows well in hot, humid environments and thrives in the South and mid-Atlantic regions. Pods average six inches in length and are silver-colored, occasionally streaked with rose. The seeds are black or brown-eyed, and somewhat blocky in shape, having angular sides such that they “crowd” one another in the pod. A climbing bush variety, crowders can reach four feet in height and are resistant to fusarium wilt and root knot nematodes. Easy to shell, the Mississippi Silver Hulls have the meaty taste and hearty texture of all field peas, but their thinner skin gives them a cleaner flavor than their earthy counterparts when freshly-cooked.

Production of cowpeas of all varieties has declined in the United States from 750,000 acres to just a few thousand over the past 25 years, with a significant percentage of this crop variety grown intended for livestock feed. While the Mississippi Silver Hull bean is not extinct, it is quite rare, as over 96% field pea acreage is black-eyed pea.

A Garden on the Corner

In everyone’s life there comes a time to keep a garden, and as a healthy middle-aged man with a nurturing spirit, this was mine. The only tools I had were determination and a small shovel.

It’s difficult to find a sunny spot for a garden in Belhaven, but I found one on the corner of Peachtree and Poplar. Year in and year out, the sun shines relentlessly for six to seven hours a day, and the corner lies to the south below a rise that shields it from blistering winter and buffeting summer winds. So I began planning a garden there on a patch of hard-baked soil on public property with a stump in the middle of it.

Surprisingly, having a stump on public property proved to be a plus; dealing with City Hall takes effort in any town, but in Jackson it takes courage tempered with arduous persistence and enduring patience. As it happened, during his brief interim administration in 2009, Mayor McLemore, in a visionary and generous spirit, issued an appeal for citizens to help make the city more attractive by planting gardens on waysides, an appeal to civic pride that perfectly fit my agenda. So I placed a call, and sure enough the city sent a crew; in hours the stump and most of the roots–I still find vestiges–were exhumed and ground into sawdust used to fill the hole left behind.

Then the shoveling began. It took weeks to get a good start because the soil was so hard-packed and big roots were still in place, but kept digging. I had to find soil where I could–don’t ask!–but slowly a garden began to take form, and almost a decade later is still growing on an L-shaped verge between a very busy intersection and a seldom-used parking lot.

On the eastern edge a sidewalk from the north once led to the corner, but its south end had long been covered when the parking lot was built many years ago. Still, since many people came to the corner down that walk, it was clear that I had to provide some way for pedestrians to walk through or around the garden, so I built two short walkways: one a southerly continuation of the old sidewalk that eventually became covered with silt and another shorter one constructed with flagstones and gravel, quite well-traveled, that leads west through the garden into the parking lot. I built four beds along the incline from crown of the hill with some old railroad ties that I found discarded beneath a bridge down the street and with concrete construction rubble that seems to be everywhere here, and a series of beds with brick edging along the southern border on either side of the entrance to the parking lot. When I told a visitor that I wanted to dig up the opposite corner and plant daylilies, he called me a benign blight, a left-handed compliment if I ever heard one.

Plants come solicited from friends and neighbors, some I find on my own; some are—more and more often—left on the purlieus of the garden for adoption, and occasionally I buy seed and sets at Hutto’s. The garden, like any other, has been a learning experience, an engine of maturation and discovery, finding out what will grow well and what won’t on my own more often than from others, learning the angles of sunlight, measuring the rain, all lessons in interacting with light and water and determining levels of care. In time, it has achieved balance and rhythm in step with my own long slow dance through the seasons.

After eight years the street corner has become a joy for me and others: In the spring, the parsley and mustard white and yellow, the iris raise alabaster and porphyry blossoms and the garlic, chives and onions begin breaking through the cool earth; early summer brings butterfly roses, echinacea, zinnias of red and gold, bee-grazed basils of every stripe, bright cosmos, small sweet tomatoes and a clump of papyrus that sways in afternoon rains; autum brings sunflowers that tower over marigolds drooped with butterflies, Clara Curtis spreads her pink bosom and the asters clustered around the sundial erupt in cornflower blue; kitchen greens bring color and provision through the dun and grey of winter before the narcissus tribe seeks the sun.

In time I will join those who have gone before me, but maybe after I go some will come to care for the corner, to hoe and sow, to give water when there is no rain, to keep at bay the grass, asphalt and sand.