Lois Chaplin, Contributing Writer
Do names like Creole lily, Milk-and-Wine lily, Deep Sea lily, St. John’s lily, or Star lily ring a bell? If so, you are connected to heritage garden flowers and perhaps also one of the most mysterious—crinums. These aren’t lilies, but members of the Amaryllis family that bloom in late spring and summer, depending on type. There are many types of crinums, mostly exotic bulbs, and often with unknown lineage. But one thing is sure, these fragrant blossoms are synonymous with old Southern gardens.
Swamp lily (Crinum americanum) is native to the South, but most crinums come from other warm-temperate to tropical regions around the world—India, Southeast Asia, Africa and South America. Mostly introduced in the 1800s, they’ve been collected and hybridized (either purposely or by accident) so it can be difficult to know them apart. Adding to the identity dilemma is the fact crinums often go by various names. Only a few crinums are easy to find commercially; most are found through local plant sales, plant swaps, market bulletins, and of course, neighbors and friends, especially in the country.
Most country crinums are very old. They can be found on roadsides and old homesteads, often long after the original homes are gone. Most are white, pink or white striped with red.
The 3-to 5-foot tall Giant Crinum (Crinum asiaticum) is easy to find in Florida, where its tall, strap-like leaves are frequent in commercial landscapes. Along Alabama’s Gulf Coast, its big leaves are knocked back by freezing weather but recover quickly. Bulbs of other species are offered in bags at retailers from bulb companies like VanBourgondien. Beyond that, it’s a search. Try the best garden center (or the most esoteric) in town, and specialty places like Petals from the Past (PetalsFromThePast.com) in Clanton. Read classifieds and farmers’ bulletins or go online to nurseries like Jenks Farmer (JenksFarmer.com), Plant Delights Nursery (PlantDelights.com) and Southern Bulb Co. (SouthernBulbs.com).
Crinums are easy to grow. They thrive for even the brownest thumb. They do well in poor soils, from clay to sand. Some do well at the margin of a pond or even in a water garden. Deep underground, some species make watermelon-sized bulbs weighing 20 pounds or more.
Moving a big, established crinum can be like transplanting a big shrub, so it’s best to find a place and let it be. Also, crinum blooms best after it is well established in one spot. Full sun to part shade is best, depending on the species. Growth is slow at first, so be patient. Plants make clumps but don’t spread wildly.
In these days of “Googling it,” there is plenty of research about crinums. If you enjoy garden books, there is a helpful chapter in Scott Ogden’s Garden Bulbs for the South.
Crinums bring wonderful fragrance and a bit of history to any garden and can be planted any time.