(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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.