Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Middle South
May, 2009
Regional Report

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Crinum liles, such as this C. bulbispermum 'Jumbo', are characterized by bold flowers and dramatic foliage.

Crinum No More With These Lush Lilies

If you're a champ at killing plants (and what gardener isn't?), stop boohooing and get to know the lush and lovely crinum lily, better known to some as "the plant that never dies."

In fact, the Southern Living Garden Book confidently says crinums have a "bulldog constitution," while Tony Avent, in the current Plant Delights catalog, describes them as
"a horticultural IRA for your grandkids to remember you by."

But before I read these over-the-top descriptions of the crinum lily, I had first-hand news of its beauty and hardiness from one of South Carolina's most talented and enthusiastic gardeners, Jenks Farmer. Now a curator of private gardens, as well as a writer, lecturer, and nurseryman, Jenks worked at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden when I met him in the early 1990's. Even then, as he expanded the garden's plant collections, crinums were a great passion.

Native to Africa and other warm and tropical parts of the world, crinums are found throughout the Caribbean and the Southern United States along the routes of the slave trade. Experts believe they were spread by sailors, traders, plant lovers of the day, and perhaps by medicine men who valued them for their "magical" properties.

However they came to our shores, crinums were among the earliest plants to be extensively hybridized, with more than 30 hybrids recorded by 1837. Popularity peaked again in the Victorian era when tropical plants were the rage, and more recently in the 1950's, when a revival in breeding produced yet more new varieties.

Jenks, who was captivated by the crinum lilies he found at old home sites and cemeteries while growing up in Beech Island, South Carolina, says their bold flowers and dramatic leaves are right at home in country gardens, but equally effective in modern landscapes.

Once established, the plants form large clumps of strap-like foliage that produce tall stems with clusters of trumpet-shaped blooms in white, pink, rose, or red. Care is amazingly simple, as crinums are adaptable to most soils and a wide range of moisture. Their drought tolerance makes them ideal container plants and yet they can endure even very wet conditions.

Grow crinums in full sun to very light shade, amending the soil with copious amounts of compost, as the plants thrive on rich organic material. Winter-dormant in the Middle South, crinum bulbs can be planted any time of year, but growth will not begin until the soil warms.

Until recently, crinum lilies were difficult to find and seldom seen in newer gardens. This spring, however, I've found the bulbs at several nurseries and retail stores.

For a safe bet, here is a list favorites:

Crinum bulbispermum 'Jumbo' blooms April through May with flowers varying from white to pink or striped. Dramatic foliage features gray, curving leaves.

Crinum 'Maiden's Blush' blooms in July with white flowers and sports erect leaves that are that are more grass-like than other varieties.

Crinum 'Summer Nocturne' blooms mid-July to frost with pale pink flowers above neat, shiny leaves. A smaller plant than most, it works well in containers or petite gardens.

Crinum 'Hannibal's Dwarf' is a fast-multiplying plant that can be used as a ground cover in sunny locations. Unique spider-shaped, pinkish-purple flowers bloom in midsummer and again in fall.

Crinum 'Bradley' and 'Ellen Bosenquet' are two of the darkest red varieties in a group known as burgundy crinums. Both are delightfully fragrant and considered among the best.

Crinum 'Claude Davis' blooms in early June with a multitude of rich pink, nearly flamingo-hued blooms.

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