July 8, 1853 ~ Matthew Perry, South Carolina and the Red Spider Lily
When you think of the history of South Carolina, you probably think of Palmetto trees, tobacco farms, the cities of Camden and Charleston, and of course Forts Moultrie and Sumter.
But for the residents of Willington, South Carolina, it’s the Red Spider Lily that is a lasting symbol of the rich history of the town with just 177 residents.
Red spider lilies are also called hurricane lilies because they begin blooming during the height of hurricane season in September and October, and especially after a heavy rain. Bold and beautiful, these glorious red flower speaks the language of passion in its bloom, and the warning of poison in its bulb
The journey of the Red Spider Lily reads like an adventure novel complete with ships and cannons, Japanese Samurai, and a journey around the world with one man bringing the first Red Spider Lily bulb to Willington.
Today the Red Spider Lily has spread across the Southern United States. But its tale began in Japan in the mid-1800s when that island nation was closed-off to the world and off-limits to foreigners.
From the early 1600s to the mid-1800s the Pacific island nation ofJapan was a closed society to keep out “dangerous influences,” such as European missionaries.
Foreign ships weren’t allowed to enter Japanese ports, Japanese people weren’t allowed to leave or to have any contact with the outside world. It was isolationism to the extreme.
Then, on July 8 1853, a small fleet of American warships commanded by Matthew Perry …. that would be Commodore Matthew Perry steamed into the bay at Edo (now Tokyo).
The “black ships,” as the Japanese described them at the time, had come to open trade. And to ensure that there would be no miscommunication, the Americans brought warships to the negotiating tables.
Threatened by the show of American strength, , Japan signed a trade treaty with the U.S.
Treaties with other Western powers followed soon after, contributing to the collapse of the shogunate and ultimately the modernization of Japan.
Japan’s long isolation was finally at an end.
Dr. James Morrow of Willington, South Carolina was a young physician with an extensive background in natural history and agriculture when Secretary of State Edward Everett appointed him to serve as agriculturist with the Perry expedition to Japan in 1853.
In February 1854, the expedition arrived in Japan, and for eighteen weeks Morrow carried out his instructions as agriculturist to introduce and distribute Western seeds, plants, and agricultural implements to the Japanese; to collect and care for indigenous seeds, specimens, and agricultural tools and products; and to keep a full and accurate journal, which would be delivered to the Department of State upon his return.
Morrow returned with 17 cases of plants containing over 1,500 specimens of both dried and living plants. He cared for his precious plants with the help of a Chinese gardener hired in Macao.
These plants were housed in the Patent Office green-houses, but some specimens made their way to his fathers plantation, Pleasant Grove, near Willington in the spring of 1855.
During the next few years, Dr. Morrow practiced medicine and planted his specimens, including his prized Red Spider Lily’s.
Dr. Morrow would eventually established a medical practice in Charleston, South Carolina, and is said to have served as a physician for the Confederacy during the War.
Unfortunately, most of Dr. Morrow’s accomplishments on the expedition to Japan have been lost. When the expedition was completed, Morrow refused to give his drawings to Perry to have them published with the official record of the journey.
He reasoned that because he had been sent to Japan by the Secretary of State, not the Military, the State Department should publish his drawings and journal as a separate volume.
The proposed volume of drawings was never published and his materials have since disappeared.
Beyond the Red Spider Lily, there is little evidence that the 1500 other plants collected by Morrow survived.
The loss of his work is tragic, but Dr. Morrow’s legacy and the impact of the Perry Expedition to Japan will never be forgotten in Willington or anywhere the Red Spider Lily grows .
In early fall, when you pass a field or hillside covered with the majestic Red Lily’s, take a moment to reflect on one mans journey and how it forever changed the landscape of the South.