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Gardening | Southern staple crinum lilies make comeback

Tulips bloom in Brookgreen Gardens.
Tulips bloom in Brookgreen Gardens. The Sun News file

Crinum lilies have grown in southern gardens for more than 200 years. They were signature plants, along with the likes of azaleas and camellias. You can still find old crinums thriving today in untended cemeteries, in country yards and on forgotten home sites where they have outlived other classic southern garden plants. The once-beloved, pass-along plants waned in popularity over the years but are making a comeback in home landscapes and public spaces.

More than 130 species of crinum lilies are native across the Americas, Africa, tropical Asia and Australia. They are adapted to a number of conditions, from boggy wet areas to desert conditions. In the United States, native crinums, also known as swamplilies, bloom along southeastern streams, rivers and ditches.

Lily is a misnomer because crinums are actually in the amaryllis family. Crinums are larger than lilies and amaryllis. Their long, strap-like leaves, which may be upright or cascading, grow up to 3 feet tall. One bulb can produce a plant 5 feet around. Bloom stalks rise 2 to 6 feet and bear large umbels of trumpet- or spider-shaped flowers, which resemble clusters of lilies. Blooms may be white, pink, purple or striped. They are fragrant, especially during the evening.

Crinums are tough, long-lasting plants that love the heat and are well adapted to humid weather. They withstand neglect as well as periods of drought and wet. The plants are not particular about soil, but their soil should be organically rich and well drained. They grow in sun or part sun; shade tolerance varies with variety. Crinums are moderately salt-tolerant, which makes them a good choice for a coastal garden.

Plant a crinum where you will not need to move it. Jenks Farmer, S.C. grower, horticulturist, author, speaker and garden designer, suggests that we think of a crinum as a shrub in terms of size, habit and time to maturity when we site it.

The bulbs are large; those that you buy are usually 1 to 2 lbs. Old bulbs can weigh 20 lbs., and they have been known to weigh as much as 40 lbs. Crinums multiply by producing underground bulbs. They form a clump with tangled roots that works its way deep into the soil. Crinums never need to be divided.

Should you want to pass along bulbs to friends, dig around and lift your clump, and then separate out some of the bulbs. Keep in mind that transplanted bulbs take several years to bloom.

Some crinum varieties produce seeds, which you can easily germinate; others produce offsets, which can be dug and transplanted. Bulbs, seeds and offsets can all be grown in a large pot rather than planted in the ground. The not-so-large varieties are better prospects for pot plants, however.

If you find draping, splaying leaves make your plant look unkempt, trim off the bottom leaves – at no harm to the plant. Leaves grow directly from the bulb. The flower stalks are leafless.

Many hybrids are suitable for Zones 7 to 10, but some are hardy in only Zones 9 to 10, while a few others can be grown in colder areas.

Interestingly, crinums are among the earliest plants hybridized, and plant breeders are actively developing new hybrids today. Most garden crinums are hybrids of African and American plants.

In the garden, crinum lilies mix well in a tropical or cottage garden. Some varieties can stand in solitary splendor, but those will likely need a bit of lower leaf grooming to carry off the position.

If you want to investigate adding a crinum lily to your landscape, check out two Carolina companies for excellent crinum lilies suitable for the coastal area:

▪ Jenksfarmer.com offers crinums field tested and grown in South Carolina. Farmer’s books on crinum lilies are also available online.

▪ Plantdelights.com in North Carolina offers a number of crinum lilies including those hybridized by proprietor and plantsman Tony Avent.

You may just enjoy discovering the old plants on a country drive, but look for crinums in newly developed public spaces, too. You will appreciate the find in either setting.

Reach DEBBIE MENCHEK, a Clemson Master Gardener, at dmgha3@aol.com.