What malevolent force is behind this strange behavior?

Spider Lilies in Bloom
Credit: Steve Bender

Grumpy is very disciplined. For example, I never consume a morning beer before 11:30 AM on weekdays. I expect my plants to be likewise circumspect. So what am I to think when my red spider lilies (aka naked ladies, surprise lilies, hurricane lilies) pop from the ground in early September, a full month ahead of schedule? Could witchcraft be responsible?

Rip Weaver, horticultural director of Aldridge Gardens in Hoover, Alabama, noticed a similar oddity. He posted a photo on Facebook yesterday of an autumn crocus in bloom. Again, a full month early. It certainly doesn't feel like fall yet. What's going on?

Whenever a reader wonders why a plant is acting funny or blooming out of season, I point to three possible causes. Weather, weather, and weather. Plants are very attuned to the weather to give themselves the best chance of growing and reproducing. When weather messes with the cues, plants get fooled.

In the cases of bulblike flowers like spider lily and autumn crocus that have no foliage above ground from spring to fall, how are they supposed to know when it's the right time to bloom? The sun can't tell them and they're not listening to you. It comes down to weather factors, such as temperature and moisture.

Where I live in north-central Alabama, the rainy season starts in mid-November and lasts into May. Every month after that gets progressively drier with October being the driest. Spider lilies and autumn crocus have figured out the easiest way to survive is to send up foliage in the wet winter and spring, go dormant from late spring through early fall when it's dry, and wait for a downpour to tell them to wake up. Rain lilies, crinums, and oxblood lilies react to rain like this too.

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This year threw plants a curve. Summer was very wet up until August. Then the sky turned off the water for three hot weeks. The soil baked and cracked, lawns turned brown, and trees dropped leaves. Finally, unexpectedly, a frog-strangler thunderstorm struck in the night, dropping several inches of rain and lowering the temperature. Within a week, spider lilies and autumn crocus bloomed.

Wacky weather can fool trees, shrubs, and perennials too. When you see mums blooming in spring or cherries, rhododendrons, and forsythia blooming in fall, blame not yourself. Blame Mother Nature.