Alligator-Lily, Palmer’s Spider-Lily

14 Jul

Hymenocallis palmeri


(Hymenocallis means beautiful membrane in reference to the white funnel at the flower center.   Edward Palmer was a Civil War doctor-turned botanist who discovered today’s species in 1874 at Miami.)

Hymenocallis etching

Etching of Hymenocallis palmeri from 1888. This is probably based on Edward Palmer’s collection.

Some species are born to be stars with celebrity good looks.  Alligator-lily is one.  Circumstances prevent a Friday field trip, so the replacement is a wet meadow down the road from my house, a rainbowland of violet meadowbeauties, white painted sedges, shocking pink Bartram’s rose-gentians, yellow xyris,  and much more, including alligator-lilies, so showy and so odd.   The spider-lily genus Hymenocallis is native to the Americas, and in gardens worldwide.  Several species occur naturally in Florida.

Hymenocallis latifolia 3

Hymenocallis latifolia, by John Bradford

Alligator-lilies beautify most of south Florida plus a satellite outpost a little to the north, preferring wet habitats, usually sunny, such as wet prairies or soggy meadows.   Sunny and wet will matter again in a moment, so hold the thought.

Hymenocallis palmeri at Botanica July


The flowers are huge, white, fragrant,  nectar-filled,  and fancy in silhouette.   Vaguely funnel-shaped, they have a narrow tube as long as your hand.     In other words, textbook moth-pollinated, almost exclusive to hawk moths sporting proboscises like flexible knitting needles uncoiling to probe the tube.

Pollinate here:  CLICK

All that is well documented on the internet, so with that low-hanging fruit plucked we shall plod  onward to  the actual low-hanging fruits.  As low as snake spit.  Spider-lilies have a fruit-seed system rare in the green world.   The fruits start out normally as pods atop the flower stalk.    As the seedpod enlarges and gains weight the stalk flops to the ground like that aforementioned snake.

Hymenocallis palmeri on ground 2nd day

Green snakes

The flimsy pivot point is at the stalk base, and the seedpod is the snake’s head.

The grounded pod splits open and reveals the enlarging succulent green seeds.   The embryo is a mere undeveloped speck at this point.   And here begins the seed weirdness Louisiana botanists Muriel Whitehead and Clair Brown studied painstakingly in the 1940s using a different Hymenocallis species.

Hymenocallis seeds

The seeds look like green grapes.

Instead of forming hard dry seed coats and going dormant like a proper seed, the spider-lily seeds behave more like independent plants.  They simply remain green and grow on their own before germination.   They photosynthesize on the ground apart from the mother plant,  feeding that little nub of an embryo  until it gets big and sprouts forth in about a month.   The thick green soft living seed coats have a unique system of  veins, resembling those in a leaf, adequate for the job of distributing the products of photosynthesis.   They even have stomates, which are the microscopic  gas exchange valves typical of photosynthesizing leaves, not normally on seeds.

Hymencallis palmeri cut seed with embryo

Seed cut open like a quartered melon.  The immature embryo top left.  The seed coat is soft, succulent, green, and photosynthetic.

To summarize,  most plants pack their seeds pre-release with a developed embryo, nutrition for it, and hard layers of protection to go dormant and then reawaken in the right place at the right time under the right conditions.    This plant, by contrast, drops an independent living soft green seed onto the moist mud to handle its own nutrient production to bring an unformed embryo to mature germination.

And now pesky ones may say, “well you covered the base of feeding the embryo, but what about protecting it?  These seeds have no seedcoats to block pests.”    True,  but these are wickedly toxic  plants.    The seeds in the photo above are glossy green and unbothered.

Hymenocallis grasshopper lighter

Unauthorized personnel.   Is the grasshopper (Aptenopedes sphenarioides probably):  rendering itself poisonous borrowing toxins from the plant?  And/or eating the petals as the least toxic parts?




Posted by on July 14, 2017 in Spider-Lilies, Uncategorized


3 responses to “Alligator-Lily, Palmer’s Spider-Lily

  1. theshrubqueen

    July 14, 2017 at 9:35 am

    One of my favorites, there must be 50 in my perennial border. And a pretty good cut flower. Interesting about the seeds. I will have to pay attention this year. Thanks for the info.

    • George Rogers

      July 14, 2017 at 10:19 am

      Thanks Amelia, Spider-lilies perfect for your Monday masterpieces. Interesting how they span habitats from swampy wet to sand dune dry. I wonder if some in your perennial border re-seed.

      • theshrubqueen

        July 14, 2017 at 1:51 pm

        It is interesting. I have to pay more attention to the seed pods as the numbers of Lilies have definitely increased to the point I need to get rid of some. I would say the ones in partial shade near the irrigation head do the best (Pure sugar sand here) i have a SatinLeaf nearby that is thriving. I was very surprised by this.


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