Tough as a mule, big as imagination, pretty as a summer dress, eternal as the sky. Those words describe crinum lilies -- also called hot country lilies. Forever, it seems, gardeners have cultivated, swapped, and rhapsodized about these bulbs, according them nearly legendary status. Among the first to be extensively hybridized, crinums' imposing blooms, gigantic bulbs, and sweet scent have captivated flower lovers for years. Yet, today, few people know anything about them. We'd like to change that.
Most hybrids entered the United States from the Caribbean via Florida nurseries. Today, they thrive untended in cemeteries, country gardens, abandoned homesites, and poorer sections of town. However, a number of mail-order nurseries stand ready to supply your garden.
Native they're not, but like many naturalized Americans, the crinum has legendary grit. "I've heard folks say, 'I've sprayed them with Roundup and run over them with my lawn mower, but I can't get rid of them,'" says South Carolina grower Jenks Farmer. Mississippi radio personality Felder Rushing recalls extracting his first crinums from the ground outside a tavern in Jackson. "I had to dig through 6 inches of broken beer bottles to get those bulbs," he recollects. Twenty years later, they bloom freely in his garden.
Given the obvious merits of crinums, why did they fall from favor? Greg Grant, an East Texas horticulturist, traces the decline to the ascent of the Dutch bulb industry, as crinums didn't grow well in Europe. Plus, established crinums are hard to transplant, as old bulbs can weigh more than 20 pounds -- but most bulbs you buy weigh one to two pounds.
Despite their determination to stay put, crinums are worth the effort. What other bulbs take sun or light shade, like wet or dry soil, bloom repeatedly from spring to fall, and live longer than Adam? Plant them in fall or spring, burying the bulbs up to their necks. They'll bloom quickly after soaking rains during the growing season. "When a flower fades, you can just snap it off, and new buds will keep opening up," adds Greg.
About the only factor limiting crinums is cold. Most hybrids do just fine from the Middle South on down. In more northern growing regions, stick with hardy crinum (Crinum bulbispermum), longneck crinum (C. moorei), and selections of C. x powellii. Mulching them in late fall provides extra insurance.
Be sure to plant crinums where you won't need to move them. They'll reward you for the rest of your life. Says Greg, "I've watched old homeplaces where the people die and the houses fall down. Their flowers disappear, and a once-in-a-hundred-years freeze kills the crepe myrtles. The only things left are the crinums. They're pretty darned eternal."