Crinums are forever

Staff Writer
The Destin Log
Laurie Kane on an early morning shoot to capture the beauty of the swamp lily.

If you like your flowers big and bold you’ll love crinums. You don’t find these in your local plant nurseries but you find a friend that has one to share and the plants travel from one gardener to another. 

These imposing beauties have been around for hundreds of years and stand as a Southern symbol of our culture of sharing plants with one another.

I found my first crinum when my husband spent a year with Xerox in Birmingham. Don’t remember how it came up but I was offered a crinum if I wanted to come out and dig it up. I accepted immediately, grabbed my shovel and ended up in the broiling hot sun of an old deserted homestead. 

Little did I know that these wild and crazy bulbs can actually weigh up to 40 pounds. I managed to dig up many of the smaller bulbs which went from Birmingham to Huntsville and now to my home in Destin.

If you want a plant you can’t kill, this is it.  A Texan, William Welch, commented that, “None have ever died.” We are the perfect zone for crinums and what other plant can you dream of that likes the sun or shade, loves it soggy or dry, blooms through the summer into the fall and some even emit a delicious fragrance. If you have a crinum today, leave it to your grandchildren in your will because it will outlive you. 

This is not a small, timid plant. Most crinum clumps need a lot of room for their long strap-like leaves that fall all over the place. In the summer the lily clumps are topped with an array of six to 18 large trumpet-shaped flowers that gently nod. When a flower fades just pinch it off and new buds will continue to open up. They range in color from white, soft pastel pink, white with rose or pink stripes, to deep burgundy red that resembles a captivating Sangria. I have read of a crinum with a yellow blossom but have never seen one.

Only one type of crinum is native to Florida and the Southeast and that is the Crinum americanum or swamp lily. The swamp lily grows 4-feet high and blooms in the warm months. It will thrive in standing water, water gardens, wet hammocks, or on the shores of ponds. 

A good irrigation system will keep them happy as clams. There could be 25 - 35 blossoms on one head that look like ten sparklers going off in unison. The white spidery flowers with six drooping petals cover the head and the fragrance from the blossoms will float across the garden to delight you.

This swamp lily flower is often confused with the spider lily flower that has identical petals but each petal of the spider lily is connected by a membranous tissue. The swamp lily leaves are deep green and up to 3-feet long and 3-inches wide.

The leaves are held upright and stately. It drops buckets of seedpods every year and I’m glad to share with any who would like some. The seedpods are interesting in that no matter what position they drop to the ground, the sprout that comes from the seed will twist and wind around until it reaches the ground and injects itself into the soil to form another lily. Isn’t nature grand?

The typical rule of thumb for dividing plants is to propagate them opposite their blooming season.  Plants like the crinum that bloom in the summer should ideally be divided in the winter. Try to plant them where you want them to stay as they resent being moved. I read a comment in Southern Living that said, “Crinums will reward you for the rest of your life. People die and the houses fall down. Their flowers disappear and the deep freeze kills the crepe myrtles.  The only things left are the crinums.” 

Crinums are available from jenksfarmer.com and marcellescrinums.com. Marcelle is noted for her excellence in crinum breeding for the last 40 years. Expect to pay $35 to $50 for a bulb but don’t forget, this is a flower that rewards you for a lifetime and if you’re lucky, one of the kids will want it when you are gone.

Laura Hall is a longtime gardener and Destin resident. She explores area gardens and other local topics with her cavalier spaniel Annie. If you would like to show off your garden or be profiled in a future column, contact Laura at llhall4386@gmail.com.