From Japan to New Bern with Commodore Perry
He brought them home to his wife. The three bulbs had travelled across the Pacific Ocean from Japan and then on to New Bern. The year was 1854 and after a slow start, the plants thrived in New Bern. His niece later described the bulbs as being, “in such a dry condition that they did not show signs of life”. But they came to life with the rain, and as they multiplied. His wife, Elizabeth shared them with family and friends. The lovely red flowers eventually made their way across the South. That is how the rather unique spider lily came to New Bern and all the beautiful flowers you see in New Bern today are descendants of that first group.
He was Capt William Willis Roberts, serving under Commodore William Perry aboard one of the U.S. Navy’s first steam powered ships as they opened the ports of Japan to the western world. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1839 to 1860, then in the Confederate Navy from 1861-1865. Capt. Roberts collected horticultural treasures on his travels around the world. He was struck by the beauty of the Red Spider Lily, and he brought the first three bulbs back to New Bern. His wife was Elizabeth McKinlay C. Roberts. They are both buried in historic Cedar Grove Cemetery. Their family monument is now surrounded by the lilies, donated by New Bern Historical Society Curator, Jim Hodges and planted and tended by the Earl of Craven Questers.
The unique flower is rather minimalist with a red starburst flower atop a single stalk. It is said that they bloom two weeks after the first good fall rain. A single stem emerges and within days reaches a foot tall. Then the red starburst radiates from the top. The Red Spider Lily (Lycoris radiata) is also known by several other names throughout the south. In some places it is the “hurricane lily” because it shows up just in time for peak hurricane season. Other areas know it as “surprise” or “magic” lily because it arrives so quickly. They bloom from the end of August to mid-September, depending on the rain, so keep an eye out for the striking red flowers in your travels around New Bern.
The flowers became closely associated with New Bern, and New Bernians are justly proud of them. In 2011 an ever-blooming Spider Lily came to New Bern. A graceful 29-ft. kinetic sculpture was commissioned by local pediatric dentist Jim Congleton. The artist, Susan Pascal Beran, a renowned sculpture artist, created a fabulous symbol of New Bern’s prized Spider Lily in full bloom. The sculpture is installed behind the New Bern Convention Center facing the Trent River. It moves as gracefully as the living flowers do in the breezes off the river. New Bernians and visitors alike can enjoy that Spider lily year ‘round.
Submitted by: Kathy Morrison, New Bern Historical Society