Story & Photography By Jeff Rugg
My favorite plants have to meet a few important criteria. They must survive on their own because I can be a lazy gardener. Insects and diseases must be rare, so there will be no need to spray. I want plants that can grow in the water along the shoreline of my water garden; the hot, dry side yard; as well as indoors. They must have big, showy flowers to please the eyes, fragrance to please the nose, tasty would be nice, and if I could get them to make a noise, I would like that too.
Most plants in the lily family fit some of these criteria and I have many in my house and yard: amaryllis, daffodils, daylily, Easter lily, garlic, onion, tulip, trillium, yucca and many others. Of all the lilies, I prefer the crinums (pronounce “cry num”), probably because like many gardeners, I lust after tropical plants I can’t have. These warm-climate bulbs can grow as large as a football and weigh over 10 pounds, easily dwarfing a merely grapefruit-sized amaryllis bulb.
Crinums are naturally tough. Native to warm areas of Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas, they can survive elephants, kangaroos and hurricanes. I have seen crinums growing in islands between traffic lanes in Dallas and Orlando. They get no irrigation; yet they thrive. Some tropical crinums are used as privacy hedges, but most are only waist high.
The Crinum americanum is native to swamps all around the Gulf of Mexico and the Everglades where I have seen them blooming as far as the eye can see. I have grown one in a pot in my pond for more than 15 years. I bring it indoors every winter as a houseplant that I can’t overwater. It has a starburst of 6-inch-long petals that are less than 1/2 inch wide. Linnaeus himself is supposed to have been looking at specimens of the American crinum when he gave the genus the Crinum name after the Greek word “Krinos,” meaning comet tail.
Most crinum flowers look like an Easter lily or amaryllis, and there may be 20 or more on a single stalk. A single bulb may send out half a dozen flower stalks at once. Like an Easter lily, many crinums are very fragrant. Most have white or pink flowers, and a few have wine-colored leaves. The foliage of most crinums is sword-shaped and long. Many of these are striped and are frequently called milk and wine lilies. I was surprised to find a milk and wine crinum bulb at a Menards a couple of summers ago, and it has bloomed twice so far.
I have plants of the only crinum variety that may be hardy outdoors in the Chicagoland region. Crinum ‘Sangria’ is a tough hybrid between Crinum procerum ‘Splendens’ and Crinum bulbispermum. This 3- to 5-foot-tall plant hasn’t bloomed yet, but it will have large pink flowers held at the end of a long bloom spike. If I get around to planting it outdoors, it will go on the south side of the house near the foundation where it can be mulched heavily for the winter.
You can order your own crinums from marcellescinums.com or jenksfarmer.com. For a great indoor crinum, try C. ‘Menehune’, which has red leaves, pink flowers similar to C. americanum, but only grows 18 inches tall. It grows in water, tolerating drought, shade and full sun.
Some crinums are supposedly edible, but I haven’t found any recipes. The plants don’t make sounds on their own, but since they attract hummingbirds that do make sweet twittering noises, I can live with that.
Jeff Rugg is an Internationally Certified Arborist, an Illinois Certified Nurseryman and a Registered Landscape Architect with a background in zoology, horticulture and landscape architecture.