Why the Pineapple Lily Makes Such a Big Impression
The first pineapple lily I grew was a real stinker — and we have lived happily ever after together for more than 20 years.
Aside from the smell of rotting meat it emitted, Eucomis bicolor made such an impression — visually, that is — that I promptly ordered more. In each spring’s bulb catalogs, I now search out other pineapple lilies as well, to grow in pots and then stash in my Northeastern cellar for a long winter’s nap.
Over the years, I have developed a deep envy of gardeners in warmer places who can grow these Zone 7-ish bulbs, which are hyacinth relatives with origins in Southern Africa, as perennials.
No one stirs that feeling more than Augustus Jenkins Farmer III — please, just Jenks — in Beech Island, S.C. Pineapple lilies and other specialty bulbs are mainstays in the garden borders and exuberant, meadow-style designs he creates for clients, as they are at his home farm and in his mail-order nursery.
The signature bulb at Jenks Farmer, Plantsman is the genus Crinum, which is “like Amaryllis on steroids,” he said. I have yet to try to convince one to put up with my climate constraints, but I’m tempted. Eucomis, though, Mr. Farmer and I have in common.
Lately, as gardeners with shared obsessions are inclined to do, we have been comparing notes. It turns out that we are both longtime frequent fliers on the Eucomis pages of the excellent Pacific Bulb Society Wiki website.
Each of our conversations has followed a sort of same-plant-different-experience theme. My creativity is confined to seasonal pots, while Mr. Farmer has to contend with the rigors of his Deep South climate, where the summer nights can be nearly as hot as the days, so he is ever seeking plants with appropriate mettle.
No matter our differing situations, what we love about our respective pineapple lilies is unanimous: Oh, those leaves.
“They give you that big, wide kind of tropical foliage effect all season,” Mr. Farmer said.
And there are not just a couple of leaves, but enough strappy ones to encircle the emerging flower stem like a lush nest. The leaves can be green or purple, or even freckled with purple, animallike spots, as can the stems.
We love the summertime blooms, too, of course. The many tiny flowers are tightly arrayed around the upper portion of each stem and capped with a tousled topknot of leaflike bracts, making the inflorescence resemble a pineapple. That feature explains the plant’s Latin name, Eucomis, from a Greek word for “good-haired.”
“The cooler thing: When they go out of flower, they look more or less like they did in flower,” Mr. Farmer said. “They maintain their structure and color, so you get a show for a really long time.”
Most have no roadkill scent, in case that raises objections. E. bicolor’s stench of sulfur compounds is an adaptation that attracts carrion flies as pollinators. Other species, pollinated by specialized wasps, smell perfectly pleasant — the scent of coconut is sometimes mentioned — and are marketed as dramatic, long-lasting cut flowers.
The ‘Funky Little Flower Farm’
Mr. Farmer has been growing Eucomis for some 30 years, beginning when he was the curator at the Riverbanks Botanical Garden in West Columbia, S.C., and acquired seed from a source in South Africa to evaluate.
Say “Southern African bulb” and gardeners may assume that means the bulb is acclimated to hot, dry conditions. But many Eucomis are actually native to places that get abundant summer rainfall: grasslands, marshy spots, stream banks and seasonally wet areas known as vleis. (That clued me in to provide regular water when they are in active growth, especially in the confines of pots.)
These days, Mr. Farmer conducts on-farm bulb trials that are foundational to all aspects of his business — garden design, mail-order sales and production growing of bulbs for clients’ landscapes. Before he specifies a plant in a design, he needs to know it will perform well.
Although he referred to his farm as “Funky Little Flower Farm” in the title of his charming 2019 self-published memoir, it is a place of exacting horticultural standards.
It’s also the family farm where he grew up. After his father died 15 years ago, Mr. Farmer made the decision to return home and save the farm by transforming it into a specialty bulb operation, which he runs today with his husband, Tom Hall.
Don’t imagine a farm-like series of parallel nursery rows, though — or at least not rows you can discern amid the delightful botanical effusion.
“In my garden design, I would say I’m very good at curves, and I’m terrible at straight lines,” Mr. Farmer said. “I’ve resisted straight lines, because when I was little on the farm, my Dad was always like, ‘Pull the string and make these straight lines.’”
He knows it’s the most efficient way to trial large numbers of plants, “but I can’t stand to just have a row of one thing,” he said. “So I have to interplant, and it just turns itself into a garden. My production beds are not like fields — they’re more like my garden.”
Which Ones Work for You?
Our questions go back and forth: How do they do for you in partial shade, or do you grow them all in sun? (We both get away with either setting, but Mr. Farmer points out that full sun maximizes bulb production — and also that purple-leaved cultivars won’t achieve the best color in lower light.)
Do you fertilize them, we ask each other? (A resounding no from both lifelong organic gardeners.)
Mr. Farmer wants to know if I cut them back in midsummer. He does so around July with certain purple-leaved ones that have faded to brownish-green in his brutal summers. And then they send out another flush of fresh stuff, he said — something I would never have expected a bulb to do.
Have I grown the littlest ones, he wonders, the ones derived from the species E. vandermerwei — dwarf pineapple lilies that include Octopus and the Tiny Piny series that may reach around six inches high in flower?
And then he makes a small confession: “I don’t know if I fail with them because they are not adapted to our climate or because they are tiny, and I tend to lose tiny plants.” (In pots here, those little guys are happy, and easier to keep track of. I divide all of my Eucomis every other year and refresh the potting mix.)
More suitable for his designs are bulbs with some stature. Mr. Farmer favors Eucomis pallidiflora subspecies pole-evansii, which has greenish-white flowers that reach three feet high or taller.
The greenish-flowered hybrid Tugela Jade, at about 18 inches high, is another he promotes — although green flowers are a hard sell. But if you surround them with purple or blue flowers, he noted, you may change your mind.
“Last year, we had it with bachelor button, and that cobalt blue and green were killer together,” he said.
Maybe most delicious are Eucomis with purple foliage, a direction that Tony Avent, at Plant Delights Nursery, heralded in 1997 when he introduced Sparkling Burgundy, a cultivar of Eucomis comosa.
Rhode Island Red, introduced by Ed Bowen, of Issima Nursery, is a hybrid of E. comosa and pole-evansii with purple-green foliage and pink flowers. When I grow it, it approaches three feet.
Then there is the fashionable Coco, with dark burgundy leaves and pink flowers.
“Coco must be named for Coco Chanel and her comfortable black outfits,” Mr. Farmer writes in his catalog description. “This bulb fits into any little spot. A wild garden, an overly planned color garden, it even works as a potted plant — that you might brush off and bring inside for a dinner party.”
And there is Reuben — “a bright pinky-fuchsia,” he said — and John Treasure and …
Uh-oh. You can see where this is leading: more Eucomis.
Making More Eucomis
It’s hard to believe the makings of such emphatic beauty are hidden inside the rather unimpressive-looking, squat, flat-bottomed bulbs.
Likewise surprising: More Eucomis bulbs can be had by rooting leaf cuttings taken in midsummer. The process takes about three years to achieve flowering stage, but it’s easy, Mr. Farmer said.
Water the plant well the day before, to hydrate the foliage. With a sharp blade, cut a leaf into two-inch cross sections. Dip each lower edge in rooting hormone powder before inserting it a half-inch deep into sand or another sharp-draining medium.
Important: Keep track of which side was down (and up); the cut edge that was pointed away from the bulb won’t root.
“In a couple of weeks, you’ll know if they’re going to rot or root — ones that aren’t working just start to deteriorate,” he said.
The successes will send down invisible white roots. Don’t expect any top growth. The next year, if you unearth a cutting, you’ll see tiny white bulbs the size of lentils with little roots that have formed below the soil line.By the end of that summer, they should be big enough to move into pots, or the garden.
Of course, now I must try this — and maybe one of the more Northeastern-friendly of Mr. Farmer’s diverse collection of Crinum lilies. If only I could limit that bulb experiment to a single kind.
Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden, and a book of the same name.
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