Traipse through any old Texas cemetery or farmyard and you are almost assured of running across one of the most enduring and cherished of Southern bulbs, the crinum lily. Though they somewhat resemble them, crinums aren’t actually lilies or even related to them. Like oxblood “lilies,” St. Joseph’s “lilies,” rain “lilies,” Lent “lilies,” and spider “lilies,” they are in the amaryllis family instead. The amaryllis family is well known for a bunch of tough, long-lived perennials in Texas.
The genus Crinum includes about 130 species occurring in warm tropical regions of the world, especially Africa. Their genetic heritage makes widespread cultivation only possible in zones 7-10, as they aren’t cold hardy in Northern climates. This also makes them supremely adapted to hot, muggy Southern conditions. Crinums (pronounced “CRY-nums”) are to the South what peonies are to the North, big bold perennials with wonderful flowers for cutting. The often fragrant, lilylike flowers occur in clusters on stalks about 3 feet tall and can be white, pink or striped (milk and wine lilies).
Crinums have big bold foliage that often cascades to the ground in lush mounds. Haughty gardeners often complain about the mounds of rotund leaves. If you ask me, it’s like complaining about somebody’s feet touching the ground. Crinums are what they are, and they don’t really care whether you like their foliage or not. They’re a lot like Texas — big and brash; take it or leave it. If their foliage gets marred by insects, it is acceptable to occasionally cut it all off so that it may be replaced with new healthy foliage. This “hair-cutting” is a rare acceptance for bulbs, so don’t overpractice it if the foliage is generally healthy.
Although crinums are extremely drought tolerant and forgiving, they perform best with full sun and regular moisture. They are unique in that most of them hail from parts of the globe that are lake part of they year and deserts others. This gives them the unique ability to handle just about anything Texas weather can dish out. My mentor and co-author, William C. Welch, once stated, “No crinum has ever died,” and he may just be right. If you happen to kill one, I certainly wouldn’t advertise it.
I’ve never met a crinum I didn’t like. They range in size from small to large, with foliage from upright to cascading. Flowers can be trumpet or spider-like and can smell like vanilla, Fruit Loops, perfume or bleach. Dr. Welch likes the more subdued pastel colors while I’ve always lusted after the boldly striped milk and wine types. He says those are gaudy, but I tell him where I come from that’s a compliment.
Greg Grant is the Smith County horticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. He is co-author of “Heirloom Gardening in the South” and “The Rose Rustlers.” You can read his “Greg’s Ramblings” blog at arborgate.com and his “In Greg’s Garden” in each issue of Texas Gardener magazine (texasgardener.com). You can also follow him on Facebook at “Greg Grant Gardens.” More research-based gardening information from the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service can be found at aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu and plantanswers.com.