Earthworms’ Castings

With Jean Ponzi


This year, on my actual mid-summer birthday, our place burst into leggy pink trumpeting bloom.

Every time I see these plants I cheer SURPIIIISE!!! Yes, each time. Just ask my mate.
These are towering members of the Allium family, a clan of many first cousins to garlic and onions. They have popped up all over our yard: in sun, shade, through choking ivy beds, and even in the bare-scraped dirt way, way back in the wilds of the place. But who dug Lycoris squamigera bulbs into all these spots? Surprise Lilies are a happy mystery.

Surprise lily, spider lily, magic lily, resurrection lily, pink flamingo flower, hurricane lily and “nekkid lady” are all the same plant. University of Illinois Extension Service muses that it might hold the title of Most Common Names for any plant.

U of I-Ext goes on to describe the plant’s split personality: the leaves and flowers refuse to appear together. In spring, long amaryllis-like leaves grow in large clumps. By early summer the leaves have yellowed and withered.

In mid-July to August the surprise appears: fragrant flowers, overnight. Each two-foot tall naked stem erupts with 6-8 blush pink blossoms that shamelessly, silently yodel Surprise!

This lily is proud of its long legs, with good reason. It’s easy, adaptable and durable to grow. They look great in masses of 4-6 bulbs planted together, as perfect companions for hostas and ferns in shady spots, or for daylilies, iris and flowering native plants in more sunny beds. Like any bulb, plant them 4-6 inches deep. They will multiply, and after a couple of years you can divide (and share) them.

Amazingly, squirrels don’t seem to want to dig and gnaw this bulb. Out in the country, surprise lilies are often the last remnants of an old house site.

Outside our home studio this summer, one big bunch toppled over in a storm. Pelting rain laid them all down flat. But a few days later those sturdy stems were up again, blowing their rosy fanfare into the breeze. That, in the plant world, is resilience!
Nature gives us lots of cool surprises.

My most bizarre favorite is Mutinus caninus. The mushroom dubbed Dog Stinkhorn is also called Devil’s Lipstick or (in an odd common-name twist) Elegant Stinkhorn. This “slender phallic fungus” has a dark tip that visually mimics a dunk into glossy offal. When you whiff it: Ooh la la! C’est merde!

Why would a dog dip his stick into poop? Is that reasonable? Snacking on it, sure, but… mushrooms can make mammals do funny things.

Missouri Botanical Garden’s Plant Finder says the mushroom column is yellow or pink, fragile and cylindrical. The orange tip is usually pointed and curved. The tip of the mature dog is covered in gleba, a slimy, spore-bearing substance.

The gleba is a dark, ucky olivey-brown, with an odor most foul. It lingers on July or August waves of heat, and this is how the mushroom reproduces: the “dog” attracts insects that spread the spores. Flies and other bugs drop by and pick up the sticky spores, then fly away to spread the spores to new locations.

Lucky you if this fabulous fungus penetrates your wood chips. Woof!

The venerable Brooklyn Botanic Garden calls this plant the Nastiest. Mushroom. Ever.
Really, Brooklyn? At least you’re comparing it to other mushrooms. Stinkhorn is surely no worse than its summer neighbors Rhus radicans (poison ivy) or that fiendish turf invader Digitaria, aka crabgrass.

It’s all in your values. When Dog Stinkhorn pokes through our leaf litter, I am just as likely to lift my Lily voice and warble Surprise! as I am to mutter Holy crap-ola, ewwww!

I hope not surprisingly, that’s me.

Jean Ponzi shares more thoughtful surprises in her weekly Earthworms enviro-conversations, podcasting from KDHX St. Louis Independent Media. Pick ‘em up at podcasts.KDHX.org, or through iTunes.