Called the Paradise Lily because of the Buddhist connotation with the Lotus sutra and the co-incidence of the autumn equinox, which is when they grow around the private graves of the family ancestors. It is customary to visit the family ancestors grave during spring and autumn equinox, as well as during the Bon festival in August, to pray for the protection of the family. And because it in cemeteries, blooming in the season when, according to Buddhist teachings, people enter a world of death from the world of life.
In Japanese, it is called “higanbana” which translates roughly to “the flower that blooms during the (fall) equinox”. Higanbana has been nicknamed shibitobana (dead person’s flower) and jigokubana (flower of the hell). Legend goes that people who eat higanbana in hunger are destined to die due to the toxin… strangely contrary to the rice field practice.
Although some people don’t like the higanbana because the associations with death, I think most people in Japan nowadays just enjoy the higan-bana, the equinox flowers as autumn hanami though.
It is native to China but was introduced to Japan so very long ago, since we know of poems about it in the famous Manyoshu poetry collection.
The stem contains some edible parts, so it was planted in great numbers on the narrow paths between the rice fields (aze-michi) to be used as an emergency food in case the rice harvest was not as bountiful as expected. It also contains a toxic agent against the mice, so it was planted to protect the rice fields.
In autumn, when our rice fields are all golden, it makes a spectacular red border for the rice fields.
However, there is also a creamy white version that I grow in my garden which has been flowering and is just finished now.
In English the flower is called the “red spider lily,” or the “hurricane lily”. (The latter name because it blooms following the rains brought by Gulf Coast hurricanes in August and September). Its Latin (botanical) name is “Lycoris radiata“. However, this flower has many names in Japanese, some say more than nine hundred. Here are just a few of them.
The word “Manjushage” 曼珠沙華 is taken from a line in the Buddhist Lotus sutra, refering to a red flower in Sanskrit prononciation.
“higan-bana” 彼岸花、flower of the autumn equinox.
“shibito-bana” 死人花, the flower of the dead.
“yuurei-bana” 幽霊花, flower that looks like a ghost, a phantom.
“tengai-bana” 天蓋花、flower that looks like the ceiling decoration (tengai) of a Buddhist inner sanctuary.
“yome no kanzashi” , flower that looks like a gourgeous hairpin decoration of a bride.
“doku-bana” 毒花, poisonous flower (as we have seen above, it contains poison)
… there are many more.