Now that we are in the summer doldrums, with temperatures tipping the century mark and abundant rainfall a nice memory from a few months ago, plants that laugh at the heat will rise to the top of what we appreciate in our landscapes. Especially plants that seemingly will grow and thrive almost anywhere, even with no supplemental irrigation. Last week I wrote about a group of little bulbs called rain lilies that burst into bloom after a summer shower. What they lack in size of plant and flower, they make up by their abundance.
At the opposite end of the spectrum of size are the crinum lilies. Crinums are a wonderful group of summer flowering bulbs, and have been cultivated since at least the mid-1800s. The name Crinum comes from the Greek word "krinon" meaning — you guessed it — "lily." There are more than 100 different species, and many named varieties, the majority of which are hybrids between various species.
Crinum lilies are a hallmark of the Southern garden, having been cultivated, hybridized, sold, traded and passed along for more than 150 years. They are a very hardy bulb, thriving in all types of soil, from waterlogged to droughty. However, all will look and flower their best in good garden soils with supplemental water during the lean summer months. But, the fact they are frequently seen thriving around long-abandoned home sites, cemeteries and ditches, where no one but the good Lord is watering, is a testament to their hardiness. You have to be trying really hard to kill one on purpose!
Despite their adaptability to Southern growing conditions, most crinums are not native to the United States. Crinum americanum, better known as the swamp lily, is our most common native. It has been often used as one of the parents in breeding modern hybrid varieties. Most other crinums come from Africa, Asia and other tropical and semi-tropical areas. Probably the most common garden Crinum species is C. bulbispermum, which also has been used in hybridizing many superior varieties.
Crinums are big! They produce large clumps or fountains of long, strappy leaves, often reaching waist high. Give them plenty of room to grow and show off. And the bulbs are also big, and they get bigger every year, often weighing several pounds. Crinums belong to the Amaryllidaceae family, and like many of those bulbs, they have contractile roots. These types of roots literally pull the bulb deeper into the ground, which helps the plant survive adverse conditions.
If you are offered to dig some crinums by a friend or neighbor, plan on spending some quality time with that clump. The careless digger often slices off the neck of the bulb, leaving the important basal plate with the buds and roots many inches below the slice. It is better to dig the whole clump, divide and reset the largest bulbs, and spread the smaller ones in new areas. Oh, and you will need a good sharp-shooter shovel to get well below the bottom of the clump. I have dug bulbs that were over 2 feet deep!
In summer, Crinums produce long flower stalks, with multiple flowers emerging over a period of several days or weeks, depending on variety. Flower colors range, depending on variety, from pure white, to rosey and shades in between. Many types have white flowers with a pink or purple stripe, giving rise to another common name of "milk and wine lilies." Almost all of them are quite fragrant, which can be enjoyed when planted near a seating area or cut and brought indoors to enjoy over several days.
Some crinum varieties will bloom several times during the summer, usually a week or so after a rain or irrigation that was preceded by a dry spell. Crinums grow and look best with full or mostly full sun, though they will grow but not bloom well in low light. They will freeze to the ground in the winter, but faithfully come back the following spring. The longer they are established in the garden, the better the floral display will be.
One of the more popular or common varieties you might find is "Ellen Bosanquet." It is a good summer rebloomer, bearing very dark pink or rosey flowers and is quite fragrant. Others include "Mrs. James Hendry," bred early century by crinum breeder Henry Nehrling; "Bradley," "Peach Blow," "Alba," "Carnival," "William Herbert" or ones simply known as "Milk and Wine."
We also occasionally get questions about another related bulb with pure white blooms whose petals taper to a thin point, blooming on a long stalk and emerging from a very large fountain of waxy green leaves. This is a Hymenocallis and is usually referred to as a white spider lily. These are typically found in very wet locations, such as ditches and along streams. "Tropical Giant" is the one usually sold or found in garden centers and landscapes. Like Crinums, spider lilies are fragrant, and the unopened flowers continue to open when cut and enjoyed in arrangements or by themselves.
Every fall, the Smith County Master Gardeners offer a wide range of bulbs, including several crinum varieties, at their Plants and More Sale and Conference. Mark Oct. 10 on your calendars for this year's event, where you can get hardy and adapted bulbs for your garden.