Crinum x herbertii - Milk and Wine Lily
Crinum lilies are one of our most common old garden and cemetery plants. In many ways, they remind me of Texas and the South. They're huge, the biggest of all bulbs. They're so showy and fragrant that they border on being obnoxious. And they're so tough that southern perennial expert, and friend, Bill Welch claims none have ever died. Although not common in commerce anymore, most country yards have a clump or two.
Originally grown as greenhouse specimens, crinums became common southern dooryard plants around the turn of the century. There are about 130 species of crinums, native mainly to the tropics and South Africa.
Most early crinums made their trip to the states by way of the Caribbean, some as early as the mid 1800's. Many were introduced through Florida nurseries. The first nursery to list crinums in the United States was Reasoner's Royal Palms Nursery at Manatee, Florida, as early as 1886.
C. bulbispermum is our most commonly cultivated species. It is also the most cold hardy. A native of South Africa, it is often seen naturalized in ditches, cemeteries, and around old homesights in the East Texas. Its rather small, drooping, trumpet shaped flowers may be white, pink, or striped. It is normally the first crinum to bloom and can bloom from spring till frost. Its wide, straplike, bluegray foliage reminds me of a giant allium. Its distinctive foliage cascades and twists upon the ground. It is one of the parents of most of our common hybrid garden crinums, which inherit this mounding foliage along with cold hardiness. Without a doubt, the most commonly cultivated hybrid crinums in East Texas are C. x herbertii, the milk and wine lilies, with their candy striped flowers of pink and white. Dean William Herbert (1778-1847), an English minister, botanist, naturalist, artist, and reformed politician, holds the record for breeding the greatest variety of crinum hybrids. C. x herbertii was described by Herbert in 1837 as a cross between C. scabrum and C. bulbispermum. Crosses between C. zeylanicum and C. bulbispermum are also considered milk and wine lilies, along with just about any that have striped flowers. C. x herbertii has cascading, slightly glaucous-green foliage, large flowers stalks, and drooping striped flowers. It blooms heavily from summer to fall, shortly following rains or irrigation. Like many crinums, C.x herbertii is very fragrant. As a child I always thought they smelled like my mom's hand lotion. To this day when I smell them, they take me back to my grandmother's porch where the two large clumps on both sides of the steps bathed us with their perfume as we rocked in the swing. In addition to many unnamed forms I also cultivate one called 'Carroll Abbott' which is big, early and very free blooming. My granny's will always be my favorite though.
The most common hybrid crinum in the upper South is the relatively cold hardy C. x powellii. This cross between C. moorei and C. bulbispermum was described in 1887 and introduced in 1888. A number of variations of this hybrid exists including the varieties album (white), roseum (pink), and rubrum ("red"). Crinum x powellii has neater foliage than C. x herbertii and tall slender flowers stalks with more erect flowers, not quite as gaudy. C. x powellii is a summer bloomer. It is available from a number of commercial bulb sources.
Another commonly encountered hybrid in the South is 'J. C. Harvey'. This cross between C. kirkii and C. moorei or C. kirkii and C. yemense was developed late in the last century by J. C. Harvey while in southern California and grown by him while living on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico. It was first marketed by the Reasoner Brothers of the Royal Palms Nursery in 1902. It has light pink flowers on slender stems resembling C. x powellii. It has neat, green, corn-like foliage and blooms in summer. It is a rather shy bloomer and multiplies very rapidly. This probably explains why most crinums given away turn out to be 'J. C. Harvey'.
Another frequently found, fairly hardy hybrid is 'Ellen Bosanquet' a Louis Bosanquet introduction. It is apparently a cross between C. scabrum and C. moorei having attractive dark pink flowers from summer to fall and somewhat erect wavy green foliage which may burn a little in the hot sun. My grandmother loves this one. It's about as close to red as a crinum gets. It makes a very striking cut flower and has a nice scent.
Crinums are very easy to grow in East Texas. They multiply best however in loose sandy loam soils. Although quite drought tolerant they bloom best with regular irrigation. Many of the everblooming types tend to bloom after each rainfall or heavy soaking. A light application of high nitrogen fertilizer can also stimulate repeat blooms along with healthy lush foliage. When their foliage periodically gets ragged or infested with insects, I cut all of it off and the plants quickly replace it with new leaves. Propagation is by division (with a good strong back and a sturdy sharp shooter!).
I don't know of any plant which has been ignored by modern gardeners of the South to the extent that crinums have. There is probably no other flowering perennial which can be classed as both extremely drought tolerant and aquatic, while providing stunning displays of fragrant, cut flower quality blossoms. If you have them, appreciate them, becaue they are truly unique Southern perennials.
Greg Grant, Research Associate SFA Gardens Outreach