UH-OH, NOW I’VE learned that there’s another plant I didn’t think I could grow in my Northern garden, but it sounds like I can. Hello, Crinum lilies, you gorgeous size-XL bulbs that I thought were the domain of Southern gardeners only, and not for me.
A new book about them by Jenks Farmer is teaching me otherwise, and making me want to order some bulbs.
Augustus Jenkins Farmer, aka Jenks Farmer, is a longtime horticulturist and garden designer who’s former director of Riverbank Botanical Garden in South Carolina and author of a couple of previous books. These days, he is, true to his surname, also a farmer specializing in growing and selling Crinum lilies and a few other goodies from his organically managed 18th-century South Carolina farm. His new self-published book is called “Crinum: Unearthing the History and Cultivation of the World’s Biggest Bulb” (affiliate link).
Plus: Enter to win a copy of the new book by commenting in the box mear the bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the January 3, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
crinum lilies, with jenks farmer
Margaret Roach: Hi, Jenks. How is it down there?
Jenks Farmer: It’s awesome. We thought we were going to have some cold, but today it is bright and sunny and about 50, 55, which is perfect Christmas weather for us—chilly enough to feel like the season, but warm enough to be in short sleeves.
Margaret: Yeah, do some gardening. In the book, you describe your crinum journey as a 30-year obsession. So for some of us non-Southerners who might not know crinum lilies first-hand yet, paint us a verbal picture. I think they’re related to amaryllis. And where are they native, and what are they like?
Jenks: O.K. The easiest way to picture a crinum is to imagine that Christmas amaryllis, but on steroids. So no, let me start over. Not all crinums are giant, but most of them that are really big and showy and flower waist to chest high. Those are the things that grab our attention.
Jenks: They have these big, strappy leaves. Some people say they look like corn leaves, but they all come out in a clump, so like that amaryllis like a daylily, but just bigger all the way around. Some of the crinum leaves can be as wide as my palm, so 4 or 5 inches wide and 5 feet long.
Margaret: Whoa. Where are they from originally? There’s different species of crinum, in the genus Crinum?
Jenks: Yeah. There are a lot of different species and they’re what we call “pan-tropical,” so every tropical humid climate around the equator.
Jenks: Yeah, in fact, we have a native one Crinum americanum, and there are Caribbean natives, but the ones that gardeners have really fallen in love with over the centuries are mostly from Central Africa.
Margaret: Oh, wow.
Jenks: The other interesting thing about them is that these are all plants that almost always grow along rivers, not in the river necessarily, but up on the stream banks. So they’re very tolerant to flooding, and especially in the South, that’s really important. It makes them very adaptable to coastal gardens, where they can tolerate saltwater flooding. But because they’re from the up on the bank, they can also tolerate long dry periods.
Margaret: Huh. That’s unusual, I would think, for a bulb, a geophyte as we would call a bulb, right, like this underground storage organ thing, that it can tolerate wet like that. I don’t think of bulbs as liking the wet.
Jenks: No, a lot of bulbs don’t and the typical spring bulbs, especially that we grow commonly in gardens, most of those bulbs are Mediterranean, so they really don’t like the wet, but these are more bog plants. In fact, there are even aquatic crinums. There’s one that’s very popular in the aquarium trade.
Margaret: Oh, what a crazy genus.
Jenks: Yeah. It’s not particularly pretty, so it’s not one that I grow, but I have because I have this desire to grow and try them all.
Margaret: Yeah. When do they bloom, or do they have a long bloom time? And what’s the color range of the flowers, and things like that?
Jenks: So when I tell people how to pick a crinum, I start with when its flowers are going to come on, because the flowers come at different seasons, depending on the cultivar or the species.
Jenks: In our climate, we’re in Zone 8, so we have crinums that start in March, and they look great through May, but then they’re totally ending and you don’t have anything but foliage on that plant for the rest of the summer. But then other crinums come on. So on our farm, the peak time is early June, where the farm is just a sea of pink flowers.
Then, there are a few that come on later, especially after fall rainstorms, we’ll get a few. But for the most part, they’re summer, and the colder you go, the more compressed that is, of course. So in like St. Louis, you would have almost all your crinums come on June and July.
Jenks: You asked about color of flowers, too.
Jenks: The color goes from pure white to rich burgundy-reds, and pretty much everything in between, including some fuchsia pinks and lots of soft pinks, as well as stripes of all different patterns. So some that are white-petaled with a pink stripe down the middle, and some that are white-petaled with a deep burgundy blood red stripe.
Margaret: Interesting. Now in your subtitle of your new book, you call it “the world’s biggest bulb.” Is it the biggest bulb? Some of the pictures in the book are hilarious, Jenks, with you holding an unearthed bulb [above]. The thing is a monster [laughter].
Jenks: O.K., Margaret, the title is meant to be a little bit provocative [crosstalk 00:07:52].
Jenks: You have to do a little bit of marketing. So if you were to search the web for what’s the biggest bulb in the world, then another bulb pops up, and you’ll see things that say, “This bulb gets up to 12 inches.”
Jenks: Well, I’m ready for the competition. I have a picture I took two days ago that’s a crinum bulb that has a tape measure wrapped around it, and it’s 26 inches around-
Margaret: Oh, my goodness [laughter]. That’s like an underground pineapple.
Jenks: That’s like the size of my head.
Margaret: Yeah. Wow.
Jenks: So I think there’s some definite possibility that it is the biggest bulb in the world, but it is a somewhat provocative title, it was meant to be. Then the question is also weird because I have crinums that are tiny, too. I have species of crinums, the American species, for example—the bulb gets no bigger than a golf ball, and the flower is only 14 inches tall.
Jenks: I grow an Indian species. It’s about 3 inches tall and it’s a real weirdo. I grow it in a pot because I’m fascinated by it. It’s about 3 inches tall, but it only flowers from 10:00 PM till about 8:00 AM the next morning.
Margaret: Oh my goodness. I guess you stay up that night.
Jenks: [Laughter.] No, no I don’t. But I get up early enough to see it.
Margaret: O.K. Oh, that’s good. That’s smart.
Jenks: All right. So there are other bulbs and there’s huge variation within the genus. So again, they go from 2 inches to 12 feet tall, if you get down into Miami gardens or Houston gardens.
Margaret: Wow. So again, as I said in the beginning, since I’ve been a gardener, I’ve known about them because some of our great catalogs in these decades that I’ve been a gardener are in the South and so forth and they would sell crinums. I thought, “Oh, that’s not for me,” but I knew what they were.
But over the years you’ve sent them, sold them, sent them, shared them with gardeners at zoos, botanical gardens, home gardeners in many different places, and that’s by matching the right species or variety that’s appropriate to the region. Is that kind of … ?
Jenks: Exactly. So when we say that we know today that crinums can be very cold-hardy, but it’s certainly dependent on the species. So for example, one of our earliest-flowering ones—it happens to be one of my favorites—is called the Orange River lily. Not because it’s orange, but because it comes from the Orange River in South Africa.
Jenks: O.K. So I have seen it in Copenhagen. I have a friend who grows it in Boston. Now, he works hard on his, so he’s a little bit out of the norm. But I have a friend in Connecticut who’s grown it as a completely hardy perennial that even sets seed and seeds itself in his garden.
Jenks: We have good friends at the Pittsburgh Zoo. I’ve sent crinums to them for years, and their crinum, there’s a beautiful shell pink called ‘Cecil Houdyshel,’ and that one’s grown in the gorillas exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo for a long time. [Above, Jenks Farmer’s husband, Tom Hall, in a field of Crinum ‘Cecil Houdyshel.’]
Margaret: That’s fun.
Jenks: I think this is really fun to learn what grows where, especially when we’ve made assumptions for most of my life. I, like you, thought, “Oh, these are Deep South plants,” but those assumptions simply were untested.
Jenks: I think one reason is they tend to be expensive bulbs. These are long-term plants. They’re, they’re slow to grow for the growers, and they’re slow to grow in a garden. So they’re investments in time, as well as money, so people have been reluctant to try them in colder places until the last 20, 30 years.
Margaret: That’s really the true truth with hardiness of anything. so many plants that when I began gardening, it said they were Zone 6 or 7, and now we know they’re Zone 5. But it was just that they hadn’t been distributed throughout the North as much, and people didn’t know, and there was no data, so to speak.
Jenks: Right. I doubt that crinums are ever going to become the peonies of the North, right? [Laughter.] They’re plants that really intrepid gardeners are going to try. There are plants of botanical gardens and zoos and people who are really into collecting are going to try, but you’re never going to see masses of them, at least I hope not. I really love that we can maintain regionality. I don’t even try to grow peonies here, because they hate our heat.
Jenks: I want to have the adventure, and I want to have the experience of seeing them spectacular, where they really want be. Does that make sense?
Margaret: Yeah, totally. But gardeners love to have some special treasures, and push things a little bit here and there. You said some are hardy in Miami. I bet you can’t grow those where you are, just like I can’t grow all the ones that maybe are your main-season ones, I probably couldn’t grow.
But I grow lots of tender bulbs that I, then, stash the pots in my basement or grow them as a houseplant or let them go dormant or whatever. Can some of them adapt to that type of culture?
Jenks: Oh, so what we do with some of the big tropical ones, they have brilliant -colored leaves, like fuchsia leaves or gold leaves [above], variegated. So I really want to grow those, but it’s too cold where I am to do it, so we grow them in pots and leave them outside all summer.
They’re really easy in pots, because crinums can tolerate drought. So if I forget to water for two weeks, and it’s O.K. In the fall, we cut back a good bit of that foliage and bring them into a garage or a barn where it’s not heated, but it’s protected enough that they’re fine. We just let them stay pretty dry in their pot, let them go dormant, and then take them out in the springtime.
But even the big tropical ones are often used as display plants and houseplants and interior plants—not so much here in the U.S., but you see that in Southeast Asia a lot.
Margaret: So I can grow some in pots up here even? Could I do that because I have lots of bulbs that I store in the winter, all kinds of non-hardy things, and could I do that to get started?
Jenks: You could definitely do that, and with the plan of taking them inside, if you have a basement or somewhere like that to store them in the winter.
Margaret: You should see my basement, Jenks, at this time of year [laughter].
Jenks: Do you not have room for the biggest bulbs in the world down there?
Margaret: Well, I’ve got so many bulbs down there it’s hilarious. But yeah, I could do it. Sure, absolutely.
Jenks: We’ll send you the little crinums [laughter]. Even into places like Baltimore, you can grow them in containers that you keep outside as long as you move those containers up against a warm house. So in the book, in my chapter on cold gardening with crinums, a fellow in Baltimore talks about how he brings his all up against the house, and he’s careful to let them stay dry. He leaves a couple of different species outside that way.
Margaret: Oh, I was interested just reading a book that not only are there different species appropriate for different regions, different climates, etc., but that you also plant the bulbs at different depths. Like you had this kind of illustration or whatever, so they’re not all the same. There’s such a range like you were speaking about earlier in bulb size and the depths you plant them out. Is there a general rule of how you-
Jenks: Even the size, even the shape of the crinum bulbs can differ. Some of them have a big basketball-like shape that we talked about earlier. Some of them have a golf ball-like shape, but some of them are just straight up and down and you almost wouldn’t recognize it as a bulb.
Some of them actually run, like they send out runners and they’ll colonize an area.
So the planting depth is completely dependent on the species, but most of them that we grow in horticulture, most of the big showy ones that people want in gardens, they need to be 12 to 15 inches deep. In colder places, they even need to be deeper. That sounds really deep, but remember, we’re talking about a bulb, like the bulbs that we ship, actually, come in there about 18 inches long, so-
Margaret: Wow. Wow. I think in the intro of the book, you describe the underground as a Medusa [laughter], the roots are so long.
Jenks: It’s so crazy. I don’t think I talked about this in the book, but we’ve dug crinum clumps that are 400 or 500 pounds.
Jenks: You have to chain it up and you have to pull the thing out with a tractor.
Jenks: That’s what I mean when I say Medusa, it’s like all these big bulbs clumped together. We call a mother bulb and then all these other bulbs-
Margaret: Right. Right.
Jenks: … that come off, so it’s a community. Then, they have big, thick roots. So unlike spring bulbs, which lose their roots at some point in their life. Every summer, spring bulbs lose their roots. They quit growing the roots die off and then they start growing again next year. But crinum roots never do that. Those roots continue growing, so you’ll have roots that can be 5 feet or really, really long.
Margaret: Wow. So they can be really big. They can be planted really deep in some cases and they’re very long-lasting, aren’t they? I guess that’s the thing about what I knew about them was that they were this traditional plant, and they were pass-alongs. They had just longevity. Let’s talk about that a little bit.
Jenks: That’s something that’s very important to me. I like horticulture history a lot, and I like my connections with my mentors, something I really value. They’re the people who inspire me and I am so happy and so lucky to have plants that actually belong to them.
So I have one crinum that I know is now 80 years old or more. I have many crinums that I grow and produce that came from one of my very important mentors who was involved in the specialty crinum societies around the globe. But they, on a general level, in old farm communities and rural gardens and backyard Southern gardeners, passed crinums around like crazy, because you can dig them up any time of the year.
So it doesn’t matter—you don’t have to say, “Oh, I’m going to come back and dig that thing up when it’s the right time.” You can get it when you’re there visiting with somebody. If you don’t get it in the ground, if you forget, if it stays in the trunk of your car for a couple of weeks, that’s all right, the crinum doesn’t mind. It can dry out and live above ground, dormant, for years, so it makes a perfect pass-along plant. Because they have that longevity, they tend to carry stories. I think that’s one of the things that always appealed to me.
Jenks: You’ll hear people, old gardeners around who are backyard gardeners, who aren’t going to read a book like this, but they know that plant, but they might know it as Aunt Sally’s Lily. I love the fact that they carry stories with them.
Margaret: Right. In the last couple of few minutes, I just wanted to say I noticed on your website and you do sell crinums as well as a few other things that you have some Eucomis, the pineapple lilies, which speaking of things that I have a lot of in my basement right now in the winter. So it seems like ones that I don’t know about that you have. So just a quick little minute pitch for some of the newer Eucomis, if you wouldn’t mind.
Jenks: O.K. So we are a farm, like you said in the beginning.
We grow everything in the ground. We’re an organic farm. Things are in rows. It’s just rows of lilies and rows of spider lilies, and now we’re doing more and more rows of pineapple lilies, which are such a great plant because you can do them in containers. They’re small, easy to take in in the winter, but there’s been a big interest in them as a florist crop.
Now, plants that are grown for florist crops, they’re not necessarily good garden plants so we’ve been buying these florist cultivars and trialing them. One of my favorites from the trials is one called ‘Coco.’ I have no idea why it’s named ‘Coco.’ I think it’s probably named that for Coco Chanel, because it’s a really dark leaf. It has a really dark flower, but it’s much more compact than let’s say, well, ‘Sparkling Burgundy,’ the old burgundy-leaf one.
Margaret: Yes. I have some in the cellar.
Jenks: Love that one. ‘Coco’ is like that, but it’s about maybe two-thirds of the size.
Margaret: Oh, interesting.
Jenks: Not only in the garden, but pineapple lilies make awesome cut flowers for the house. They last for months.
Margaret: Except for Eucomis bicolor [above, at Margaret’s]. Don’t use that one as a cut flower, because it stinks like dead meat [laughter].
Jenks: It is so smelly.
Margaret: But I love it anyway.
Jenks: I should say that about crinums, too. The one that I recommended, that Orange River lily, it’s a really beautiful one, tough as nails, but it’s a little unpleasant, too.
Margaret: So, yeah. So Eucomis—well, I just love them and I was excited to see that you have several that I’ve never even seen or heard of, so I might have to be placing an order for them [laughter].
Jenks: Actually, they make-
Margaret: Very interesting.
Jenks: We use them for rooftop plants, too. They’re a great rooftop plant.
Margaret: You’re kidding.
Jenks: Because of the low soil profile, they make a complete, very solid ground cover almost all summer.
Margaret: Wow. Who would’ve thunk? I had no idea. I use them in pots. Obviously, again, up here in the North, that’s what I do with them. They’re fabulous. Well, Jenks Farmer, I’m so good to speak to you and thank you so much for alerting me to the news of your new book, “Crinum: Unearthing the History and Cultivation of the World’s Biggest Bulb,” which I’m really enjoying. I’m excited about trying a new plant, so thank you.
Jenks: Thanks, Margaret. We look forward to seeing pictures from crinums in your garden this summer.
Margaret: O.K. [Laughter.] I hope I do a good job. O.K. Pressure, pressure! Talk to you soon.
Jenks: Thank you.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the January 3, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).