December 22, 2014

Tiny Dancers

Like lovers dancing in the dewy breeze, Southwest Florida's rain lilies (Zephyranthes simpsonii) are harbingers of spring. Delicate and tentative-not unlike a new romance-rain lilies, or fairy lilies as they are sometimes called, are commonly believed to be born of fire. And certainly when fire sweeps through the pine forests, burning away the undergrowth, the lilies are more conspicuous.

When fire rids the meadows and pine stands of undergrowth, the sun transforms the dormant lily bulbs to a corps de ballet in miniature. The diminutive flowers-stalks are only 6 to 8 inches in height and the single flower topping each one is only 2 or 3 inches high-may bloom in the hundreds, but their appearance on stage lasts only two or three days. They may then lie dormant for years.

Evocative they may be, but deadly, too. While many bulbs are edible, if consumed in great quantities rain lilies are fatal. The Seminoles used the potent bulbs to fight the pain of a toothache-but very, very carefully.

Lilies tend to have petals and stamens in multiples of three, and most rain lilies follow that pattern with six petals and six stamen; but aberrations are not uncommon, producing flowers with four petals and stamen. Typically, they are white, but here rain lilies are usually pink-tinged. They are native but not endemic. Quite rare, they are on the Florida Department of Agriculture list as a "threatened" species.

So a few weeks after an early spring wildfire has swept through moist, low pine forest, look for the ballet of the fairy lilies. But blink, and like an erotic fantasy, the flowers will be gone.