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Crinums - Classic Tropical Beauty

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Crinum 006-230x153For a really tropical look in the garden try growing Crinums. With over 130 species of these beautiful lily like herbaceous bulbs of the Amaryllis family. These are mostly of tropical origins but some species can survive in cooler climate zones.

Climates as cold as Zone 5 when protected from freezing with a leaf or straw mulch. The ones most commonly grown in New Zealand are mostly natives of Australia and South Africa. The bulbous, fleshy, thick roots are often 20cm (8”) across and 30cm (12”) tall, resembling a giant daffodil bulb.

Many species of Crinum are grown more for their very handsome leafy foliage more than their flowers. Leaves are usually (semi) evergreen and persistent; often fleshy, long and strap-like, sometimes broad or occasionally narrow and thin but always clustered in an informal rosette around a thick central stem. Leaves are often a soft apple or spring green shading and often glossy above.

Each flower spike arises from the bulb independent and separate from the leaves in the same manner as Amaryllis and Hippeastrum. On foliage Crinum species these spikes may rise little more than 30cm/12inches above the foliage. But in the more spectacular species, large 1.2m/4ft flower spikes rise well above the crown of foliage. The flower stem is topped with a two sided bulb sheath just like Amaryllis and Hippeastrum.

Once mature, this splits open to reveal 10-20 or more buds that open in succession into fragrant Lily-like funnel-shaped or trumpet flowers. In some species these flowers can be much more open like large spidery stars. Flowers appear most from Late Spring through Summer and Autumn. Truly tropical species can flower sporadically almost all year.

Crinum flowers are brilliant for cutting lasting for weeks. They are famous for opening in close succession, one after another right down to the very last bulb even when picked.  Flowers have a lovely soft, sweet fragrance somewhat reminiscent Jasmine or Lilium longiflorum (Christmas or Easter Lily) and some species resemble them in flower form. Flowers are typically iridescent or pearl white or softest mauve or shell pink but occasionally bright pink to brick red and there are also bicolour sports.

Crinum americanum, the Swamp Lily, features pure white to cream open and spidery blooms on an erect stem held above a limited amount of foliage with up to 24 per fragrant, starry flowers per stem. Crinum asiaticum has a very similar spidery white flower cluster but the plants are much more clumping, leafy and somewhat larger. Flower petals are somewhat variable from almost spiralling or recurving long and very narrow petals almost like filaments to a slightly broader-petaled, recurving star-like bloom.

Crinum asiaticum ‘variegata’ syn. Crinum pedunulatum ‘Festive’ is an attractive variegated form that is grown more for its handsome foliage with flower clusters somewhat spidery and produced on shorter stems within the foliage. This also speaks to the confusion now occurring between very similar varieties and species that readily cross breed creating a wide range of very similar cultivars. Included here are some very dramatic cultivars with various patterns of variegation in cream, light yellow and white and also with entirely burgundy, red and pinkish foliage and pink to nearly wine red flowers.

Crinum pedunculatum in its original species is again very similar to C. Asiaticum but the original C. pedunculatum species has slightly wider petals producing a more flattish star or with petals slightly recurving in a more lily-like open star. These two species and their many cultivars have now been so interbred that it is difficult to distinguish the many hybrid cultivars from their parental heritage.

Crinum bulbispermum is the most common species with nicely formed Lily-like funnels or trumpets held on solid stems above broad, strap-like clumping foliage. Flowers feature in cream to nearly yellow, many shades of pink and rose to nearly red as well as pristine white and some lovely bicoloured Lilies with a pink, red or purple strip in the middle of each petal.

Crinum mooreii, the South African Marsh or Moore Lily, first produces quite broad, glossy and long handsome leaves arranged in a dramatic rosette upon a fleshy and thick stem 1-2m/3-6ft tall. Numerous off-shoot bulbs give the plant a lush and clumping appearance. Flower spikes appear independently from the sides of the bulb. These flowers are classically pearly white to softest pink but bright to rich pink and Amaryllis blue-sulphur pink cultivars also exist.

Crinum Mooreii are big, impressive somewhat flattened funnel-shaped Lily trumpet flowers with a pleasant sweet fragrance that are ideal for cutting. In some cultivars the petals open widely and slightly recurve. Petals are broader than found in many other species and often feature a sparkling cellular appearance that reflects bright light. They grow on tall 1.2m/4ft solid stems and often produce two or more flower spikes per bulb held high above the foliage. Each spike produces 12-20 or more flowers. These make bold and spectacular specimens for the (sub) tropical garden but foliage dies away in Autumn and reappears in Late Winter.

Crinum powelli syn. powellii is a similar plant to the C, moorei species. It creates a very similar vegetative appearance but leaves are arranged on a much shorter fleshy trunk and appear more clumping and dense. Bold, solid and thick flower stems rise above the foliage 1.2m/4ft but each flower is a slightly more open star-shaped symmetrical trumpet with petals slightly more recurving. C powelli features many shades of pink and pinkish salmon to nearly brick red as well as white and cream.

Crinum x powellii rosea is very bright pink with a beautiful symmetrical trumpet form. Foliage is long and strap-like but often a little thinner than C moorei and in mature plantings produces large clumps of long strap-like leaves all produced from near the base.

Some Crinum bulb species can be hard to find. This is especially true of the more impressive larger and taller flowering trumpet Crinum Lily species.  While in shape contrast, the spidery species, often known commonly as ‘Swamp Lilies’ have become ubiquitous with the tropical landscape worldwide. But since the trumpet-flowering Crinum species were once a favourite garden plant from yesteryear, sometimes massive clumps can be found in old gardens where they have multiplied for years undisturbed.

Some Crinum species distinctly resent disturbance and often will not flower for two or three years after transplanting. But the semi dormant large bulb species are extremely hardy and easily moved while dormant through the Late Autumn to Early Spring period before their foliage becomes far advanced. All species are somewhat difficult to shift from one ground position to another while in full leaf and flower.

But they transplant quite easily at almost any time from established containers. The tropical and swamp species are best shifted or transplanted near the end of their dormant period just before new grow resumes around Late Winter into Early Spring.

Crinum are propagated by dividing and splitting off shoot bulbs which will bloom in one or two years dependent upon their size. They can also be propagated from their large seeds which are nearly round in some species and quite irregular and can somewhat resemble a misshapen Avocado stone. New hybrids are always produced this way.

Simply place the seed-stone about half submerged in a freely draining light and porous potting mix suitable for most house plants. Maintain a bright, lightly moist and warm environment. Germination is erratic from a few weeks to several months. The seed will first produce a thick exploratory seed root out of one end of the bulb which will quickly burrow and anchor itself into the soil. Then a leaf shoot will emerge, in a somewhat similar style to a sprouted Coconut. Young seedling plants usually take at least three years or more before they produce their first flowers.

By far the easiest way to propagate new stock is from bulb or off shoot divisions. Bulb offshoots are removed from the parent bulb during their dormant season. These are best replanted immediately with their neck above the ground. They establish quickly when planted during Autumn through to Early Spring and soon will form a deep root system when planted into loose and open soil. Their culture is very easy, thriving in full sun to light shade in well drained soils or large containers. Avoid prolonged severe cold and wet sites that freeze. Many Crinum species thrive in marsh, swampy conditions that remain constantly warm with little if any freezing.

Small bulbs of species like Crinum moorei are quite easily established in containers and most of the fleshy bulb Crinum species respond well to being pot bound very similar to the Hippeastrum. Most herbaceous and rhizomous-rooted spreading species are somewhat less accommodating to small containers because of their extensive root systems but make spectacular specimens for large tubs and landscape planters that can be kept moist.

In colder climates, Crinum usually does best when grown outdoors during the warm growing and flowering season, then bring the containers indoors to a dry, frost-free position for dormant storage over the colder Winter months. Semi evergreen species respond very well to this treatment and can flower for many years in even rather cramped containers. Evergreen species demand more humidity and bright sunshine to keep them going over the Winter months. They make stunning planters for the larger conservatory or sunroom but require plenty of space.

Most Crinums are fairly heavy feeders and respond well to granular, liquid and slow release fertilisers. Feed lightly and regularly during their period of active growth through their flowering season. Stop feeding semi tropical species that go dormant in Autumn and Winter as soon as lower foliage begins to yellow. Evergreen tropical species that continue to grow and flower all year can be fed year round. Almost all Crinum species prefer consistent and regular watering while in active growth but drier conditions when they are dormant.

Being (sub) tropical bulbs native to subtropical warmer climates, most Crinum need a resting period after flowering. The evergreen tropical species usually still tend to grow but flower less during the cooler and drier (sub) tropical Winter months. (Sub) tropical Winters are often dry and sunny with rains returning later in Spring through the steamy tropical Summer and early Autumn. Most Crinums have ideally adapted to this sort of seasonal climatic variation.

The semi deciduous Crinum species usually begin to go dormant in Autumn. Then they prefer dry conditions and moderate warmth especially in Late Autumn and Winter. In less benevolent borderline warm temperate climates experiencing cool or sometimes cold but damp to wet Winters and some freezing, Crinums often perform well when planted under the protective eaves of the house. They also thrive in the high, light shade of mature trees.

Wherever freezing is a concern, Crinums can be deeply mulched around the bulbs or vegetative clumps with fluffy leaves, straw, burlap or any other frost-protective mulch which will not pack down and became chilling and wet. The graceful, glossy foliage reappears in Late Winter to Early Spring and can stay nearly evergreen in mild positions.

Crinums add a genuine tropical touch to the landscape garden and the larger conservatory or sunroom. Their dramatic, handsome foliage and exquisite flowers make them an easily grown and sustainable asset well worth the small amount of time they take to produce dramatic results.

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dale-john 01-100x66 Dale Harvey and John Newton met in Melbourne Australia in 1981. Since then they both have supported each others careers while also building and maintaining their own. Read about how they were able to turn their joint careers into one and creating a dream of a better world starting in their own local community.

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