by Sara Henderson, Director of Gardens
Those of us who grew up in the South likely remember giant mounds of green, strap-like leaves in a neighbor’s garden. If we were lucky we came across it in full bloom one June evening and could savor the lovely scent. The large flowers, white with a center stripe of wine red, would start in early June and continue for several weeks. We probably called them Milk and Wine Lilies if we knew what to call them at all. Today we know that the Milk and Wine Lily is really one example of the genus Crinum and that crinum have become fashionable once again.
Crinums originate in Africa and the tropics. Many different forms have been found growing along the routes of the slave trade and it is surmised that they originally came to the southern states by slaves who brought them for their believed medicinal value. They soon became favorite garden plants of the Victorian era and were one of many plants that satisfied the Victorian love for the beautiful and exotic. They still grace our gardens and ongoing research is showing that they may well have potent medicinal value.
The bulb alone looks exotic. An old bulb can easily exceed a foot in length with a grapefruit-sized base that can weigh up to 20 pounds. Even fairly young bulbs are large and a bulb that’s been growing and multiplying undisturbed for many years can be a challenge to dig. Stories of gardeners resorting to the use of tractors to lift them are not uncommon.
These are tough, almost indestructible plants and their sturdy constitution means that many of the different forms are still available today. There are over 180 species in the genus Crinum and a vast number of variations within each species, but all fall into three colorations – pure white, pink in a variety of shades, and white with a red center stripe. Beyond that they have been chosen for height, fragrance, width of petals and other attributes that found favor with gardeners.
The classic southern Milk and Wine Lily is actually Crinum x herbertii, a cross made in 1819 by early crinum breeder Dean Herbert, however similarly colored forms occur in many species. These are obliging garden plants, only demanding full sun and time to reach their amazing potential. Start with the largest bulb you can acquire and you will soon have their fragrance in your garden each summer.
Here at Oakland we grow several different varieties in addition to the Milk and Wine form. We have a beautiful deep pink called ‘Ellen Bosanquet’, a lovely pure white one shared with us by a volunteer who purchased it from Plant Delights Nursery, and several other forms that friends have shared. Crinums are truly passalong plants and we’re always happy to receive gifts from fellow gardeners, however several southern nurseries are starting to offer a nice selection. Jenks Farmer, The Southern Bulb Company, Plant Delights Nursery, Brent and Becky’s Bulbs and Old House Gardens are all good sources for a variety of forms. Wherever they come from, please remember to plant the bulb where it can remain for many years. You will be rewarded by a magnificent display on a mature plant and appreciation from whomever would have had to do the digging to move it!