Flower of the Dead

Red spider lilies bloom in the diminishing days of summer, springing up from drying lawns and fields as if from nothing.

A native of China, the lily (Lycoris radiata), is poisonous to most animals. Every part of the plant can induce vomiting, paralysis, even death. They’re planted in rice fields to deter rodents. When they spread to Japan, where the dead were buried without coffins, the lilies were planted to prevent vermin from disturbing grave sites. In time, the brilliant red flower became known as the corpse flower, the ghost flower, and—most poignantly—the lost child flower.

Buddhism also came to Japan from China, and the Lotus Sutra became a fundamental text for many Japanese schools. In the sutra, heavenly flowers descend from the realms of the gods, falling on the Buddha and his audience. Many devotees associate this flower – called Manjushage – with red spider lilies.

The lily blooms around the autumn equinox, Higanbana, the day the dead return to the world, and higanbana is a popular Japanese name for the flower. The flowers are said to bloom on O-higan “the other shore,” of the Sanzu-no-Kawa, a Styx-like river separating the lands of the living from the realms of the dead. There the bright red blossoms beckon souls to their next life.

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