Crinum

The heat and humidity are cranking up, and we are entering Crinum season in the garden.  Crinum are classic southern garden plants, something you just won’t see in gardens in the U.S. northeast or midwest.  They are large bulbs (some softball-sized or bigger) that produce masses of foliage and large, intensely fragrant flowers during the hottest part of the year.  The bulbs are very long lived, and many hybrids are “heirlooms” that have been passed down from gardener to gardener for the last century or two.  However, as interest in these plants wanes and waxes, interesting new hybrids are still being made.

Crinum is a pan-tropical genus of the Amaryllidaceae, the amaryllis family.  Most of the showy hybrids are derived from South African species, with occasional crosses to a few South American or Asian plants.  The most hardy and suitable for growing in Zone 7 tend to be crosses with the African Crinum bulbispermum.  The majority of plants that I see in gardens around here seem to be the old hybrid Crinum x powellii ( C. bulbispermum x C. moorei), in either its pink- or white-flowered incarnation.  I planted my first Crinum x powellii ‘Alba’ bulb this spring, so I don’t expect flowers from it this year.  Several other hybrids are blooming now, though:

Crinum ‘Pat’s Herbertia’

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Crinum ‘Pat’s Herbertia’. A “milk and wine lily”

This one is supposedly Crinum bulbispermum x (scabrum x bulbispermum).  It has 4-ft long arching leaves and large, fragrant tubular flowers on an inflorescence about 4-ft tall.

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Crinum ‘Pat’s Herbertia’ foliage

The individual flowers only last a day or two, but they’re produced successively over the course of a week to ten days.  Multiple inflorescences are produced over the summer months; my plant is currently blooming on inflorescence number three for the year, and two more are growing rapidly.

Crinum ‘Mrs. James Hendry’

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Crinum ‘Mrs. James Hendry’

This is a hybrid of unknown parentage dating from the early 1900s.  Scott Ogden in Garden Bulbs for the South (Timber Press) writes that Crinum ‘Mrs. James Hendry’ is one of the “most beautiful and rewarding of southern perennials.”  I can’t disagree.  Unlike C. bulbispermum hybrids that can look messy when their foliage gets whipped around by the wind, Crinum ‘Mrs. James Hendry’ has neat, upright, sword-shaped leaves about 3-3.5 ft long.  The flowers open pink and fade to white, and they have the most amazing fragrance, particularly in the evening.

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Crinum Mrs. James Hendry, plant habit

Crinum ‘Ellen Bosanquet’ — Maybe

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Mislabeled plant. Maybe Crinum ‘Ellen Bosanquet’

This plant was supposed to be a striped hybrid but was clearly was mislabeled.  I am fairly sure that it is  Crinum ‘Ellen Bosanquet,’ a hybrid dating from around 1915 that is generally considered to be one of the best ‘red’ (i.e. reddish purple -there are no true reds) Crinum hybrids.

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The buds of Crinum macowanii (Zambia form) were attacked by slugs this year, but I hope it will produce another inflorescence later in the summer.  I’m also hoping that this will be the year that some seed-grown Crinum bulbispermum ‘Jumbo’ plants finally bloom.  I also have a couple of small Crinum buphanoides seedlings that are still in pots.  They will remain in the greenhouse for a couple more years, until I can be sure that the bulbs are large enough to survive the rigors of a North Carolina winter.

Summer begins

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Male ruby throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) at one of our feeders

Last Monday was Memorial Day, the traditional start of the summer holiday season in the U.S.  In my garden, summer begins when the fireflies appear, and the baby hummingbirds fledge.  We spotted the first fireflies a couple of weeks ago, but this week the population increased dramatically.  When the sun goes down, the garden is filled with slowly flashing yellow lights as the little beetles fly up from the grass and flowerbeds.

During the day, the action is a lot more frenetic.  Since early April, a few adult hummingbirds have been visiting our two feeders, which I refilled once a week or so.  But suddenly there are dozens of hummers jockeying for position, and we go through a liter of sugar solution a day.  Their harsh chattering and the sound of buzzing wings fills the air as they dogfight over the lawn and chase each other away from the feeder or favorite flowers.  Occasionally several will settle down to drink peacefully at the same feeder (four on the small, six on the large), but it never lasts long.  Another soon shows up and starts a chain reaction fight in which the tiny birds orbit the feeder like fighter ships in a Star Wars movie.   I have counted ten or more at a single feeder, and the other is just as busy.

Ruby throated hummingbirds

On dry, sunny roadside banks and meadows, patches of bright orange show that the blooming season of native butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) has started, and as Spigelia marilandica finishes flowering, A. tuberosa takes over as my favorite flower in the garden.

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Asclepias tuberosa. The best specimen in the garden is a volunteer seedling that sprouted in the gravel path beside the mint patch.

This is one of the best insect plants that you can grow in North Carolina.  Like all milkweeds, it is a food plant for the caterpillars of the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).  Monarchs are becoming very scarce, sadly, and in ten years gardening at this location, we have only had caterpillars one year.  But A. tuberosa flowers provide food for bees and other butterfly species, and those are not in short supply:

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Carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.) visiting A. tuberosa flowers
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Pipevine swallowtail butterflies (Battus philenor) on A. tuberosa

When the plants are finished flowering, they attract beautifully colored milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) that feed on the developing seeds.  But no matter; enough seed survives to float away on tufts of fluff, so that more plants appear every year.

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Oncopeltus fasciatus nymphs on A. tuberosa follicles.

Once planted, A. tuberosa can be tricky to transplant, because its tuberous roots grow deep and break easily.  If you plant a couple of potted seedlings, they’ll cross-pollinate and give you plenty of seed that you can spread around.  It seems to take about two years for seedlings to reach blooming size, and a couple more to grow a really nice clump.

Much less colorful but still elegantly beautiful, Yucca filamentosa is also blooming now.  I planted it on the dry mound around our wellhead, along with the prickly pears and a few other xerophytic plants.

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Yucca filamentosa

It was supposed to be the variegated clone, ‘Color Guard,’ but it seems to be some sort of unstable mutant.  New growths come out variegated, but over the course of the year, they darken until they are indistinguishable from a wild type plant.

On the other side of the house, Hydrangea quercifolia, oakleaf hydrangea is also blooming white.

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Hydrangea quercifolia

This is a southern species, with a native range centered on Alabama.  It is a much more reliable bloomer than the Japanese Hydrangea macrophylla, because the new growth is less susceptible to damage by late freezes.

Some cultivated clones have inflorescences made up entirely of large sterile flowers, equivalent to mophead forms of the more familiar H. macrophylla.  However, I prefer the look of wild type plants, equivalent to a lacecap H. macrophylla, with a few sterile flowers surrounding clusters of tiny fertile flowers that attract many bees.

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The H. quercifolia flowers are looking their best this week, and they’ll continue to look good until the Japanese beetles, the scourge of summer, arrive to devour them.  That could happen any day.  I saw a few beetles this week, munching on banana leaves, but most will emerge over the next couple of weeks.  If I can keep the beetles from doing too much damage to the hydrangea, its inflorescences will slowly turn pink and will be attractive until well into autumn.  Eventually they’ll dry out and turn brown, but they’ll remain on the plant and, together with the peeling bark, provide winter interest.