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Today is May 30, 2020

Mississippi Seen

September surprise

By Walt Grayson

September surprise

Spider lilies are an unexpected pleasant surprise. For instance, this photo was published in our first “Looking Around Mississippi” book. I had gone to Rodney to get a shot of the “other” church when I saw these spider lilies highlighted in the front yard of an abandoned house. Another day or even another time that day and I would have missed them.

The spider lily is to fall what the dogwood is to spring — the blooming announcement that things are about to change. Now, I call them spider lilies. That’s what Mama called them. I’ve heard them called pop-up lilies or surprise lilies — even “neked ladies.” Although there is another summer flower on a slender stalk, more pink than red, that is more frequently called “neked ladies.” Google it and the pink ones show up. You may have to misspell it as “naked” ladies, however.

And yes, I am being facetious about the spelling “neked.” But sometimes it’s just better to spell some things the way they are pronounced. That way whatever bare thing you are talking about carries the fuller meaning. Someone pointing and saying they see someone “naked as a jay-bird” just doesn’t have the urgency that “neked” carries. Hardly makes you want to turn around and look if they are only naked. Too formal.

So as far as the flower, I will go with what that famous botanist William Shakespeare said about roses smelling just as sweet no matter what they are called and continue using Mama’s name “spider lilies.” That’s the name I grew up with. (AlthoughI don’t recall them having much of a smell — so the illustration breaks down a little.)

But whichever, they pop up about this time every late summer or early fall. And I have yet to determine what triggers them to bloom all of a sudden. Here in Mississippi, it certainly isn’t cool crisp weather — not with some of them starting in late August many years. I asked horticulturist Felder Rushing how spider lilies know to bloom and he sort of shrugged and said perhaps it was moonlight. Seems to me moonlight would more likely bring out those “neked” flowers.

Whatever it is, the red spider lily of late summer is the forerunner of the return of autumn. They will slip up on you and surprise you, some years. Hence the other of their many names, “surprise lily.”

They will grow their foot-long stems out of bare ground and bud and bloom between lawn-mowings. What was a smooth yard a few days ago will be dotted with red flowers a few days later. I try to remember that when zipping around on the mower this time of year and not nip any in the bud. I really like to see them bloom. They remind me of my childhood.

They also remind me that many of life’s pop-up surprises can be quite pleasant. So we always want to be mindful how we carry ourselves so we don’t nip any of those unexpected pleasantries in the bud before they blossom.

Walt Grayson is the host of “Mississippi Roads” on Mississippi Public Broadcasting television, and he is the author of two “Looking Around Mississippi” books and “Oh! That Reminds Me: More Mississippi Homegrown Stories.” Contact him at

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