Crinums: Stalwart summer bulbs

‘Ellen Bosanquet’ with its magenta flowers is one of the most popular crinum hybrids.

Elizabeth Lawrence wrote, “In my garden, a month seldom goes by without bloom from some member of the amaryllis family,” (“A Southern Garden,” Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1942).

The modern amaryllis family still includes many of the spring, summer and fall-blooming bulbs that Lawrence loved: daffodils, florist’s amaryllis (Hippeastrum), St. Joseph’s lily, surprise lily, various rain lilies, and crinum lily.

Crinums, like many members of the amaryllis family, are still called lilies, as they formerly were considered members of the lily family.

Crinums have large, showy, trumpet-shaped flowers with six petals commonly associated with lilies. The flowers form in a loose cluster of two to six or more at the top of an 18- to 36-inch stalk, which may need staking. Flowers open in succession, and each flower lasts about two days.

I am a latecomer to crinums. At first, I wasn’t sure if there was room in my yard for such large plants, and the price put me off, but I wanted another deer-resistant plant, so I acquired a few of the hundreds of crinums available. The three I have are a good sampling of what is available.

‘Stars and Stripes’ is one of the many selections of crinums that have white petals with a prominent pink stripe down the middle. These are commonly called “milk and wine lilies.” The advertisement for ‘Stars and Stripes’ said the name comes from its tendency to bloom in early July.

‘Ellen Bosanquet’ is one of the darkest pink crinums commonly available. My bulb came with three bulblets attached. I gently separated them and grew them in a planter for a year or two to increase in size before I put them in the ground. The result was three plants in three shades of pink, all lighter than the magenta mother bulb, so, apparently, daughter bulbs don’t always reproduce the color of the mother bulb.

Native swamp crinum (Crinum americanum) also blooms in July, but if it hasn’t had enough water, it may bloom as late as September. Each stalk normally produces six flowers with drooping, milk-white petals and prominent red stamens and anthers (the flower parts that produce pollen).

If you want a swamp crinum, buy one, only one. My first plant, a single trial specimen, bloomed the first year, so I wanted more. When I was planting two additional plants, I noticed that the first plant had sent out three or four stolons (“runners”), underground stems that grow horizontally to produce new plants. As Clemson Extension agent Amy Dabbs once said, before long, you’ll have a wheelbarrow full.

One caveat about crinums — and I always have a caveat, regardless of how well a plant performs — is that crinums can be a bit irregular in their blooming, similar to amaryllis. Of the three crinums I have, ‘Ellen Bosanquet’ and swamp crinum have bloomed every year but ‘Stars and Stripes’ has not. Whether this fickleness is characteristic of all milk and wine lilies I cannot say.

Crinum bulbs should be covered with soil “up to the top of the neck.” However, I planted some of my bulbs too shallowly, and now they have a long neck protruding above the soil surface, which doesn’t seem to be a problem.

Swamp crinum needs moist soil and will bloom in part shade. Other crinums prefer normal to moist soil and full to part sun.

Despite their preference for moist soil, crinum bulbs don’t like potting soil. I once bought a bulb in a pot, and when I planted it, I put the potting soil in the hole, as you would with a nonbulb ornamental. The bulb rotted, disproving the common claim, reported in the “Southern Living Garden Book” that “no crinum has ever died.”

I also once put sprouted crinum bulbs into potting soil, since I wasn’t able to plant them when they arrived in the mail. The leaves immediately started to turn yellow.

Sources for crinum bulbs include Plant Delights Nursery (plantdelights.com), Jenks Farmer (jenksfarmer.com), Southern Bulb Company (southernbulbs.com), and Brent and Becky’s Bulbs (brentandbeckysbulbs.com).

Native swamp crinum is available locally from the S.C. Native Plant Society, Lowcountry Chapter at their spring and fall plant sales at Charles Towne Landing (scnps.org/lowcountry) and Roots and Shoots Nursery (rootsandshootsnursery.com).

Anthony Keinath is professor of plant pathology at the Clemson Coastal Research & Education Center in Charleston. His expertise is in diseases of vegetables. He is also an avid gardener. Contact him at tknth@clemson.edu