A lily for the ages

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by Tony Avent

illustration by Ippy Patterson

Since just before the war between the States, crinum lilies have been a popular staple in rural gardens throughout the deep Southeast – a far distance from their mostly native African origins.

These lilies began their journey in the 1600s, when they were first cultivated in the U.K.. European plant breeders broadened the lilies’ palette, which helped them find a welcoming home in the hot, humid Southeast.

It didn’t take long for Gulf Coast plant breeders to become captivated by these beauties, and to begin to further hybridize them to create new colors and forms. Even today, you can find abandoned clumps of crinum lily hybrids throughout the Southeastern countryside. While many of the hybrids created before World War II have been surpassed by modern hybrids, one variety that has stood the test of time is Crinum ‘Ellen Bosanquet.’

Crinum ‘Ellen Bosanquet’ (Bo – sand-ket) was hybridized in the 1920s by Floridian Louis Percival Bosanquet. Although Bosanquet kept his crosses as secretive as the Colonel did his chicken recipe, it’s thought his new introduction was a cross of the early 1900s hybrid crinum ‘J.C. Harvey,’ and either of the African natives crinum scabrum or crinum moorei.

Bosanquet was an English transplant who settled in 1888 just northwest of Orlando in Fruitland Park, Florida. By all accounts, he was quite a plantsman, whose pastimes included breeding crinum lilies. One of Bosanquet’s crinums so struck his fancy he took a daring step (for a nurseryman) and named it after his wife, Ellen Hall Bosanquet, a descendent of George Washington. Although Louis Bosanquet developed more crinum lilies during his career, including one named after himself, none came close to matching the popularity of his Crinum ‘Ellen Bosanquet,’ the top-produced crinum cultivar in the world.

Crinums are bulbous cousins of the more popular hippeastrum (mistakenly sold as Amaryllis). If you think hippeastrums have large bulbs, wait until you dig – or try to dig – a crinum lily. When they’re happy in rich, moist soil, crinum bulbs can reach a size just shy of a basketball.

In the garden, crinum ‘Ellen Bosanquet’ offsets nicely, so before long, you’ll have a rather large (7’ wide) clump, composed of numerous bulbs. Due to something called contractile roots, the crinum bulbs pull themselves deeper in the soil each year, so don’t expect to find them close to the soil surface. I’ve found the bottom of some crinum bulbs as deep as two feet below the soil surface.

In our climate, crinum lilies die to the ground after the first hard freeze, but as soon as freezing has passed in spring, the four-foot long, glossy green leaves emerge from dormant bulbs. In our area, crinum ‘Ellen Bosanquet’ begins flowering in mid-June and continues to produce more stalks through much of the summer. The large, reddish-burgundy flowers have a delightful spicy fragrance and emerge in clusters of nine to 11 atop two-foot-tall stalks.

Crinum ‘Ellen Bosanquet’ is quite easy to grow, and flowers well, given at least six hours of sun daily. While crinum lilies are incredibly drought-tolerant, they will not flower well without fairly regular moisture.

Crinum ‘Ellen Bosanquet’ is widely available online, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll find one at a garden center. Of course, the best option is to find a neighbor with one that needs to be divided or moved. If so, be sure to bring at least one sturdy shovel and good back muscles – or a small backhoe.