In the Garden: Yet Another “Lily”

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Crinium

Over the past couple of months we’ve looked at a couple of plant species that have “lily” in their name—daylily and rain lily—yet aren’t true lilies.  While their flowers resemble those of lilies to the casual observer, neither one is in the Lily family (Liliaceae).  But throwing horticultural correctness to the wind, I invoke Shakespeare’s wisdom, with Juliet saying, “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” (In modern parlance some might say, “It is, what it is!”, all too often mere ignorance passed off as profundity.)

I had no intention of starting a series on lily-like plants, but rather was merely writing about plants that were looking attractive at the moment.  With that disclaimer, we turn our attention to yet one more plant often taken for a lily: the Crinum, sometimes incorrectly referred to as Crinum Lily.  

With more than 180 species, Crinum happens to be both the common, as well as the scientific name, of this genus.  Members of the Amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae), they are indigenous to much of the tropics and subtropics, with one species native to the Deep South.  Most of the tropical Crinums would not be hardy here, but hybrids are much more common in cultivation and some can be grown as far north as zone 6.

Most Crinum species grow from bulbs, although a few spread by rhizomes.  Bulbs tend to get very large—easily softball-sized and reportedly ranging up to twenty pounds.  Most species grow in either seasonally or permanently wet sites, but their large bulbs allow them to get through dry periods.  As the Crinum matures, smaller bulbs known as offsets or pups form at the side of the parent bulb and can be removed to provide a new plant.

Removing offset bulbs, or even chopping a large bulb into smaller viable pieces, is not for the faint of heart, however.  At this point I need to defer to someone who might well be called the King of Crinums, Augustus Jennings Farmer III.  Quite a name, pairing well with his South Carolina heritage, but he’s known simply as Jenks, or Jenks Farmer, Plantsman. 

Living and farming in the small community of Beech Island, SC, Jenks now primarily grows and sells Crinums, but he’s also designed two major public gardens and penned Deep Rooted Wisdom, a book on gardens and their gardeners, and Funky Little Flower Farm, an almanac-style recounting of life on his farm.  A note about Beech Island: It’s not on the coast, and it’s not an island.  Located near the Savannah River, just across from Augusta, Georgia, it was originally called Beech Highland, owing to its elevation above the river.  Originally from this area, James Brown lived the last decades of his life in Beech Island.

I highly recommend visiting Jenks Farmer’s website and watching his videos on YouTube.  Aside from his wisdom, Jenks entertains with his twangy drawl.  That might sound like I’m describing some kind of hayseed, but far from it.  Jenk’s speech has a rhythmic lilt as he carefully chews on  every word.

All Crinums share a certain family resemblance: a big clump of strappy leaves, 12” to 42” tall, with a leafless flower stalk (scape) poking up just above the foliage.  Depending on your take on things, the clump could be described as bold, coarse or untidy, and with age can grow to several feet in width.  Most crinums are large enough to make a statement on their own, but a grouping of three has even more impact.  A perennial with more delicate foliage such as Amsonia could be allowed to weave among the crinums for textural contrast, while smaller bulbs like daffodils provide early-season interest until the Crinums emerge from dormancy.

When planting a Crinum, dig a hole 9” deeper than the plant’s roots, then back-fill with dirt once you have the bulb placed.  The point on the bulb’s neck where green becomes white should be at grade level.  Full sun or some afternoon shade provides best growth and flowering for Crinums.  They’re happy in damp but not boggy situations; average moisture is fine, and they tolerate drought, albeit with reduced flowering.  When a hard freeze comes, a light mulch will provide winter protection and hide the mushy foliage as well.

Color on Crinums ranges from pure white to purplish-red, including white with pink stripes (see photo).  Some varieties are much more fragrant than others, so check descriptions if that’s important to you.  A few varieties that are hardy in zones 7a and 6b include Crinum ‘Antares’ with black-red buds opening to rich-red flowers, a large plant at 42” tall and ultimately 8’ across.  A more demure plant at 24”, the reddish-purple flowers on C. ‘Ellen Bosanquet’ emit a spicy fragrance.

If you want to push your garden zone a bit to 7b, Crinum ‘Brighter Star’ features 7” white flowers— the red stamens providing a nice accent— poking out of five-foot glossy leaves.  Or if you’re on the more conservative side, Jenks Farmer offers his Cold Hardy Collection of three varieties: ‘Milk and Wine’, white with pink stripes; ‘Pink Flamingo’, pale pink; and ‘Orange River Lily’, with flowers that are white and pink-purple.

In addition to Jenks Farmer, other good sources for Crinums are Plant Delights Nursery and the Southern Bulb Company, the latter allowing you to pick among three bulb sizes when ordering  certain varieties. 

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