CRINUMS ARE subtropical bulbous plants that suggest a lily that ate too many bonbons, and crinums are among the fatties I love.
Along the lower Mississippi Valley, if you wanted to see crinums, you had only to explore the streets of the poor sections of town, where the great "milk and wine lilies" flourished undisturbed by the thin fashions of rich folks' gardens.
A crinum bulb is somewhat larger than an orange - some are said to be larger than footballs, though small muskmelon is as large as I personally have noticed - and it lives forever.
Crinums propose to be evergreen, but the great yard-long strap leaves, fleshy and glaucous, are killed by hard freezes, and all the plant above the ground turns to corrupt mush.
When this happens, the gardener does nothing whatever, except perhaps Yankees would carry on in their usual alarmed way, accomplishing nothing, of course, but demonstrating they are alert and concerned, etc.
The typical crinum-grower, however, would do nothing, as I say, an in the spring a few tentative signs of life might appear from the rot, and by May a fountain of tropical foliage would have sprung up, and by the end of the month, the first stalks of lilies.
In all the years I grew crinums, I never saw anything eat the foliage or blight the blooms. No bacteria, no fungus, ever got up the nerve or insolence to attack a crinum.
The clump grew slowly and steadily, through offsets from the parent bulb, and years later there is still was. The blooms of the commonest crinum were shaped like narrow Easter lilies, the ribs of the flowers flushed with deep wine-madder.
Some crinums have a scent as good as sweet peas, but usually the fragrance is heavier and less pure, and some crinums have a vaguely disagreeable scent (it would be offensive indeed, except the gardener learns not to sniff) like an animal in some degree of excitement.
The flowers usually nod down at a 45-degree angle, so you have this inch-thick stalk (or much thicker, depending) about waist high all crowned with a dozen or so lilies of milk-white flushed wine, drooping as if nobody, surely, could possibly expect them to do anything more.
When I think of the "fine" gardens of my part of the South. I know gardeners were bound and determined to grow a lot of Japanese hollies (one of the few plants I really dislike) because they were thought to be refined and elegant, since they never flowered, fruited, bore colored leaves or did anything else that I could see, except sit there and look like poor imitations of boxwood. They always got red spider and, if used as a hedge, they invariably died out here and there (just as in Washington) so the effect was always wretched. Such gardeners rarely had room for what they called the weedy crinums.
I suspect, now I think of it, that gardeners who love the crinum usually dislike the niggling little ratty Japanese hollies, and vice versa. People used to say of crinums, and probably still do, that they abhor those floppy leaves and hang-dog blooms.
What they really dislike is that curious type of authority so unmistakable in the crinum, of unflappable richness and luxuriance, indifferent to typhoons and hurricanes, unstinting in generosity of flower (compared to any lily) and perfectly able to hold their own against anything the world, the devil, or the gardener may take into their dumb heads.
A fellow once gave me some seeds from a clump of crinums planted in his garden in 1851, and they flowered within two years, since the seeds are the size of pecans and resemble small bulbs.
To dig up a crinum is a project. I learned not to offer anybody crinums, not because I minded reducing the clumps, but because I got tired of digging to China and prying the bulbs loose.
One day, in an old part of town on the Tennessee-Mississippi border, I saw a glorious flower, shell-pink, with outward-facing (not pendulous) flowers. It looked like a combination orchid and ginger lily, and it was a crinum. Over it an old woman had propped up a flame-colored umbrella, to keep the sun from bleaching the color of the bloom to white. The umbrella was much larger than umbrellas nowadays, and I never knew the old woman to use it except to shield the crinum when it was in bloom.
There was a wonderful white crinum too, with flowers like a saucer composed of flat pointed segments, with a fragrance of intense and pure sweetness. Somebody gave me that one from an old garden out in the country somewhere. Doubtless it was some old garden hybrid that had been treasured and handed around for many years.
Up here I do not have any crinums, at least until last spring when I saw some tiny bulbs (no larger than a small pear) for sale at a garden center for a dollar each. The two bulbs I planted outdoors in May put up a tip of green, then seemed to die, and I thought, well that is not the way a crinum should behave, but life is too short to mourn for what is lacking, and I pressed right along to pastures new.
Recently (in December) when I dug a hole for a new clematis, rather pleased to find a vacant spot where the crinum had failed to grow, up came the crinum bulb, not rotted at all and good as new.
It had sat there all these months neither growing nor dying. Crinums abide. How foolish of me to have forgotten it.
So I put the two May bulbs in two December pots, as it were, and set them in the basement where they have begun to grow. If I can keep them going, I will plant them outdoors in mid-May and I suppose they will then go on from strength to strength.
A crinum clump can occupy a circle five feet in diameter, which can only be grudgingly given by a town gardener.
Still, I am glad to have my crinums back, even if only (for the moment) in pots.
If I were efficient, I would check the gardening magazines for ads for West Coast amaryllis specialists and write, saying I was interested in the best crinums and what did they have for sale?
There would be a few delays, but in the end I would get them. I do really miss 'Cecil Houdyshel,' a superb deep pink crinum which would be hardy in Washington, I suppose, since it did not even blink at a temperature of 12 degrees below zero in my former garden. (That does not mean it likes cold winters, but I imagine it would grow as far north as Washington or, with a little encouragement and shelter, even Philadelphia.)
The bulbs I bought here last spring were called Crinum X powellii, but my experience with crinums in the past is that names are pretty unreliable. I never met a crinum I did not like, and I want these creatures to know I welcome them, whatever they turn into. The little bulbs, no longer than thrice the size of tulip bulbs, do not fool me.I have an excellent idea what they will turn into, and the pale modest green shoots - ha. It is pretending to be a delicate thing. I can play any game it wishes, but it doesn't fool me.
It is going to be a crinum, and a glory of the summer, and it is going to make every itsy-bitsy thing look mean and unworthy. I worry about it this first winter in the pots. It is very like keeping an infant hippopotamus in an incubator, to being with. I only wish I had a hedge of eentsy Japanese hollies I could chop out to make room for it.