There really are two types of heirlooms. The first is a cherished piece of silver or china that can be passed along from generation to generation. These heirlooms are worthy of appreciation, but represent an obligation to keep them in good condition. Their horticultural equivalent would be a biennial heirloom vegetable that’s difficult to protect from cross-pollination and requires careful collecting and cleaning of its seed crop to pass it along. They’re like a complicated houseguest that one is happy to invite over, but equally happy to see depart.
The second type of heirloom, more like an old wooden worktable, glows with a patina from continued use and requires minimal care as it helps us perform our daily tasks. These pieces are taken for granted, like an old, agreeable friend who is always there when one needs them. I have no doubt that crinums (Crinum spp.), also known as cemetery lilies or milk-and-wine lilies, would be classified in the latter category.
Jenks Farmer is the perfect caretaker of these heirloom bulbs, as well as of new crosses of this genus, many of which will become the heirlooms of tomorrow. Farmer owns and operates the Plantsman heirloom bulb nursery in Beech Island, South Carolina with his partner Tom Hall. As a child, Farmer fell in love with Crinum lilies, finding them growing among stands of bamboo on the remnants of an old plantation. He was immediately taken by the two traits that make them so garden-worthy: their incredibly fragrant pink, white, or bicolored flowers, and their Darwinian spirit — blooming away for decades in a garden that had long been overtaken by bamboo and brambles. As much a botanical anthropologist as a plantsman, Farmer also loves these plants for qualities that are connected to their story and personality. He appreciates that “these pass-along plants appeal to all sorts of people, and that they have a sort of democratic nature to them.” Easily propagated through division, cultivated varieties of crinums share their intoxicating beauty and fragrance with whatever audience is at hand.
There are many species of crinums native to the wilds of America, the streams of Africa, and the cliffs of Asia. Over the centuries, these species and their crosses have made their way into the horticultural landscape. Some, such as Crinum x herbertii, were the result of breeding in 19th century England. Others, such as the revered ‘Ellen Bosanquet’ (pictured opposite) were developed in the South in the 1920s and 30s. One particular favorite, given the cultivar name ‘Regina’s Disco Lounge’ (Crinum x gowenii) by Farmer because of the site where he first came across it, is thought to have been bred some time before 1850, well before the disco era.
Although Crinum lilies have waxed and waned in popularity over the decades, it’s no wonder that these plants have been passed down. As stalwart, relatively disease-resistant, adaptable garden performers, they’re increasingly aligned with modern horticultural practices. Farmer quickly saw the benefits of adding them to a public garden when he was the director of horticulture at Riverbanks Zoo & Garden in Columbia, South Carolina. Crinums are a great way of providing flowers in the high heat of summer because many cultivars bloom for a long period, although others have bloom times ranging from April through October. There are types that handle everything from extreme drought to being submerged in water. While many of them assume their share of garden real estate, these plants deal well with competition, with species and cultivars ranging from towering giants to dwarf forms whose stature is akin to daylilies. As geophytes, crinums create and store energy in their bulbs and respond well to being cut back hard after bloom. They also handle being set amid a crowd of perennials and annuals that overtake them in the late season, only to take center stage again the next season.
The strappy leaves of crinums give us a clue about their relationship to another flowering beauty, the amaryllis, and it helps explain their adaptability as well. Just like a Christmas amaryllis, crinums can handle a hard cutback provided it’s well-timed. Jim Martin and the staff of the Charleston Parks Conservancy are using them in a mass planting whose primary form of maintenance will be an annual bush-hogging. Given the tough nature of these resilient bulbs, they’re being used increasingly as mass plantings for challenging sites, such as median strips and along pathways on public sites.
All of these qualities recommend crinums. For many years, though, crinums were considered to be hardy only in the South, and were relegated to container plantings in the North. But a few, such as ‘Cecil Houdyshel’ and ‘Orange River Strain’ (C. bulbispermum), have been found to grow well in Zone 6 and as far north as Chicago and Boston. For the less hardy forms, containers are the only option in less temperate zones. But crinums are well-suited to being potted up, stored as they go dormant for winter, and simply watered and brought back to life — not dissimilarly to how many northern gardeners grow Lily of the Nile (Agapanthus africanus). When Farmer gave an ‘Orange River Strain’ bulb to George Schoellkopf, the creator of Hollister House Garden in Washington, Connecticut, Schoellkopf assumed the bulb would need to be containerized or grown in Santa Barbara, California, where he gardens during the winter. Six years later, the Crinum Schoellkopf planted in his Zone 6 Connecticut garden is coming back stronger than ever. Given that this species is one of the crinums that comes true from seed (most crinums need to be produced from divisions to be true to type), Schoellkopf has been able to share ‘Orange River Strain’ with friends in both Connecticut and Southern California. However, Farmer advises gardeners in northern zones to acquire as big a bulb as possible to give the plant the best chance of survival — so perhaps those seeds are best passed along to a friend in a warmer climate.
As these plants gets passed along from coast to coast and from gardener to gardener, we can all be grateful for heirlooms that don’t burden the heirs but rather bring them pleasure — and memories of gardens and gardeners they have known.
• Common names: Cemetery lily, milk-and-wine lily
• Family: Amaryllidaceae
• Type: Bulb
• Zones: 8 to 10; usually grown in containers north of Zone 8
• Sun: Full sun to part shade
• Soil: Rich, moist, and well-drained
• Propagation: By bulblets in spring
• Characteristics: Striking, fragrant blooms; strap-like leaves
Lee Buttala is a garden writer and editor who has worked for the Garden Conservancy as preservation program manager. He collaborated with Seed Savers Exchange on The Seed Garden: The Art and Practice of Seed Saving.
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