How the Spider Lily Got Its Death Flower Reputation

Perhaps the most macabre flower, red spider lily meanings are rooted in one of humanity's greatest fears... death.

Published August 21, 2023
spider lilies closeup

When you think of lilies, large, trumpeted blooms that almost curl into themselves come to mind. But spider lilies look like something that'd better fit alongside the Addams Family’s clipped rose bushes. The striking red flower with thin stamens coming out of the petals isn’t just a goth gardener’s dream plant. Instead, unfolding the spider lily’s meaning throughout history reveals a complex and intriguing story.

Spider Lily Meanings Across Time and Space

Spider lilies carry a lot of cultural and historic baggage. If they were human, they’d be that old neighbor with wild secrets from their youth. But beware! These spooky flowers don’t look like they’d be the linchpin in a film noir for nothing.

The Japanese Death Flower’s Macabre Folklore  

The spider lily is native to the Far East and is featured in a lot of historic cultural practices in countries like China and Japan. In Japan specifically, spider lilies have been associated with death for centuries.

You see, spider lilies can be deadly. The plant is chock-full of lycoline, which, when ingested in the right quantities, can cause severe illness and death. However, it wasn’t a rampant poison in Japan. Rather, people planted it over loved one’s fresh graves to ward off any animals that might come digging around for the decomposing bodies.

Why were they planted instead of other poisonous options? Well, higanbana (one of the flower's Japanese names) naturally sprout around the autumn equinox, when many Buddhist families take time to visit their ancestor’s graves, and so they’re a natural choice. Hence, why the flower is also associated with loss and saying goodbye.

While spider lilies could also be planted around garden beds or farm plots for the same purpose, it’s this graveyard connection that cemented spider lilies symbolizing death.

Spider Lily Meanings Transform Across the Ocean

spider lilies in the forest

It’s believed that one of the military entourage spearheading Japanese and American trade relations (which had only opened up a year prior) brought spider lily bulbs to America in 1854. Supposedly, these bulbs first bloomed in North Carolina and then spread throughout the American South.

However, without native Japanese voices present to speak for the cultural context behind the flower, Americans didn’t grow up with the same funerary connection. And while some recognize its symbolic connection to death, others choose to look at it as a representation of rebirth.

Think of it like the Death card in Tarot. Avid practitioners often treat Death as a sign to move on and start anew. So, in some modern spaces, that’s exactly what spider lilies mean, too.  

Pop Culture Keeps the Symbol Alive

In American media, the flowers that tend to get the most screen time are blooms like roses, calla lilies, daisies, and sunflowers. But Japanese media is keeping this spider lily tradition alive. Just take a look through each of these animes, and you’ll find visual references to the striking flower:

  • Tokyo Ghoul
  • Demon Slayer
  • Hell Girl
  • Inuyasha
  • The Promised Neverland

Other Colors Don’t Strike the Same Fear

white and red spider lily

Although red spider lilies are the ones that get the bad rap, it’s not the spider lily's only color. In fact, there’s a huge rainbow of spider lilies to choose from.

Some of the more unique colors and patterns are:

  • Peppermint spider lilies
  • Fiery cloud spider lilies
  • Rhythm and blues spider lilies
  • Yellow streamers spider lilies

Don’t Be Afraid of the Death Flower

Spider lilies belong to that rare camp of botanicals that can kill. Keeping with nature’s theme of making the deadliest things the most beautiful, red spider lilies are immediately captivating. And while they have a much greater meaning in Japanese culture than, say, in the United States, we can appreciate how modern media has helped to keep the folklore alive.

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How the Spider Lily Got Its Death Flower Reputation