Traipse through any old Texas cemetery or yard and you are almost assured of running across one of the most enduring and cherished of Southern bulbs, the crinum lily. Though they somewhat resemble them, crinums aren’t true lilies or even related to them. Like oxblood lilies, rain lilies and spider lilies, crinums are in the amaryllis family instead.
The genus Crinum includes about 130 species occurring in warm tropical regions of the world, especially Africa and Asia. This genetic heritage makes widespread cultivation only possible in zones 7-10, as they aren’t cold-hardy in northern climates. This also makes them supremely adapted to hot, muggy Southern conditions. Crinums (pronounced “CRY-nums”) are to the South what peonies are to the North, big bold perennials with wonderful flowers for cutting. The often-fragrant, lily-like flowers occur in clusters on stalks around 3 feet tall and can be white, pink, or striped (milk and wine lilies).
Crinums have big bold foliage that often cascades to the ground in lush mounds. Haughty gardeners often complain about the mounds of rotund leaves. But crinums are what they are, and they don’t really care whether you like their foliage or not. They are very much like Texas - big and brash. If their foliage gets marred by insects, it is acceptable to occasionally cut it all off so that it may be replaced with new healthy foliage. It’s also a good time to toss a bit of fertilizer around them. This “crew cutting” is a rare acceptance for bulbs, so don’t over practice it if the foliage is generally healthy.
Although crinums are extremely drought tolerant and forgiving, they perform best with full sun and regular moisture. They are unique in that most of them hail from parts of the globe that are lakes part of the year and deserts others. This gives them the unique ability to handle just about anything Texas’ weather can dish out. I believe it was my mentor, William C. Welch, who stated “No crinum has ever died.” If you happen to kill one, I certainly wouldn’t advertise it.
Crinums produce huge water and food storing bulbs below the ground, which makes digging old clumps a major chore. The good news is that they never need dividing unless you want to propagate more. If so, trench around the entire clump, severing all the roots, with a sturdy sharp shooter before trying to pry the clump from the ground. Once out of the soil, use a hose and nozzle to remove the water from the roots before dividing the individual bulbs. Some crinums multiply quickly, and others hardly at all. You can tell how many bulbs there will be by the number of necks protruding from the ground. As crinums have year-round roots, it is best to replant them immediately and not let them dry out. It generally takes them about a year to settle back in.
To be quite honest, I’ve never met a crinum I didn’t like. They range in size from small to large, with foliage from upright to cascading. Flowers can be trumpet or spider-like, and can smell like vanilla or perfume. Dr. Welch likes the more subdued colors, while I’ve always preferred the gaudily striped milk-and-wine types. Where I was raised, gaudy is a compliment.
Greg Grant is the Smith County horticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. You can follow him on Facebook at “Greg Grant Gardens,” read his “Greg’s Ramblings” blog at arborgate.com or read his “In Greg’s Garden” in each issue of Texas Gardener magazine (texasgardener.com). For more information on local educational programming, go to smith.agrilife.org.