Perennials

How to Grow Crinum ‘Super Ellen’

Crinum 'Super Ellen'

Every Southern garden should have at least one crinum. Although most of the ones found in southern gardens originated in the Caribbean, these are not tropical plants. While they love our sun and humidity, they easily survive our zone 7 winters.

Crinum ‘Super Ellen’

For a dramatic garden accent, one that is 100 percent deer proof, look no further than to the largest of the crinums, ‘Super Ellen’. A highly opinionated lady, she is well worth the effort. I first saw her when I went to visit Jim Massey’s Holly Hill Daylily Farm: She was making her usual dramatic statement, assuming all eyes were on her as she knew she was the winner of the ubiquitous beauty pageant.

Jim promised me a bulb if she offered him one – this lady can be slow on the reproductive scale. As luck would have it, she threw out two bulbs so I went to pick up mine, which Jim had thoughtfully planted for me in a pot, in the following May.

Now crinums are conservative creatures that dislike relocation – an understatement. Throughout the first summer, she wasn’t at all sure she was joining a nice family as she seemingly sulked, only throwing out one or two additional leaves. The following year she perked up but just threw out a couple of scapes containing lovely magenta-colored flowers.

And then we did the unthinkable: We cropped off her leaves in the fall rather than the spring. Immediately I realized we had “done wrong” as the saying goes.

Hell hath no fury more than a pruned-at-the-wrong-time ‘Super Ellen’. The next May I was on the phone with Jim, wailing that I’d killed her as the lady was not stirring. Jim came out to check her out, bringing another ‘Super Ellen’ with him. He wasn’t sure she was dead – but then he also wasn’t sure she was alive. Finally, towards the end of July, she stirred.

Gradually she filled out but there were no scapes that year. As we began an uneasy relationship throughout that third summer, I apologized, telling her that I would never prune her against her wishes.

Then something dramatic occurred. I planted climbing Rosa ‘Peggy Martin’ near her. Now ‘Peggy’ is of even temperament, doing what she is supposed to do: She grows to incredible heights while producing 5000 small blooms in the spring.

The effect on ‘Super Ellen’ was electric. This was a prima donna used to owning the garden but now an upstart, a usurper, was taking over. At this point ‘Super Ellen’ began growing, producing scape after scape. From one bulb she has now graduated to containing over 25 bulbs that produce flowers for a good two months. The two ladies now live in a peaceful co-existence.

Growing Crinums

For toughness, it is hard to beat a crinum. They flourish through drought, survive wet summers provided they have well-draining soil, never require additional food, and are repellent to deer. What more could you ask for?

The two things they will not tolerate are removal to a new location and early pruning. Please move the house before you relocate the crinum. And, as with all bulbs, do not prune them in the fall.

Now the downside to this is that, starting with the first frost, they will look rather regrettable throughout the winter. Their leaves, becoming a sodden mess, never totally disappear. However, by January the leaves are black and much reduced so now is the time to separate them from their mother. The decaying leaves have done their job by giving the bulb the much needed energy for next year’s growth.

To plant crinums, you don’t have to dig a deep hole, as contractile roots will gradually pull the bulb down to greater depths. Cover up the white tops and it’s good to go. And then be patient as it can take crinums several years before they will consent to adorn your garden. Just tell yourself that it is well worth the wait, that you’re carrying on a lovely Southern tradition.

Featured image: Crinum ‘Super Ellen’ / Kit Flynn

After joining the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners in 2003, Kit Flynn now has emeritus status. She writes gardening articles for the Durham County Extension Master Gardener newsletter, an online magazine “Senior Correspondent,” and “The Absentee Gardeners” column for “The Blowing Rocket” with Lise Jenkins.

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