Whether cared for or not, the incredible cape lily creates copious quantities of big beautiful blossoms all summer long.
In the 19th century, English plant breeders crossed two species of South African crinum lilies - Crinum bulbispermum and C. moorei - to create the hybrid Crinum X powellii, or Cape lily. The Cape lily has gone on to become one of the most popular perennials in the southern United States, passed along though generations of gardeners. The Cape lily grows in a mound of arching straplike leaves 3-4 ft (0.8-1.2 m) long which arise from a large, long-necked bulb. The bulb can be as much as 7 in (18 cm) in diameter. The fragrant funnel shaped flowers grow to 4 in (10 cm) long and are borne on leafless stalks in succession from late summer until autumn. Many garden crinums, the "milk and wine lilies", have striped flowers, but Cape lily has flowers that are either all white or all pink. Most cultivars are some shade of pink. 'Cecil Houdyshel', which produces clusters of 6-10 deep rose-pink flowers throughout the summer, is an old time southern favorite. 'Album' has pure white flowers.
The crinum lilies are similar to spider lilies (Hymenocallis) and amaryllises (Amaryllis), but can be distinguished by having basal rosettes of whorled leaves, unlike those of the others which have their leaves in two distinct ranks.
Cape lily (Crinum X powellii) is of garden origin, the result of hybridization between two South African crinum lilies.
Plant crinum bulbs with the neck just a little above ground level in a fertile, humus-rich moist soil. Light: Cape lily does well in full sun or partial shade, but produces more flowers in full sun. Moisture: Cape lily tolerates heavier soils than many bulbs, but still does best in well drained soils. Water freely during the flowering season. Hardiness: USDA Zones 6 - 11. This is one of the most cold hardy of the crinum lilies, but it still cannot tolerate long, freezing winters. In the Lower South, Cape lily is evergreen, but the foliage dies to the ground following freezing temperatures. Cape lily can be grown farther north if it is mulched very well with dead leaves in the fall. Propagation: Crinum bulbs may be divided every 3-5 years. The bulbs are long and deep rooted, and it's best to dig up the whole clump and then remove the side bulbs rather than try to slice them off while still in the ground. Plants started from these offsets may take 2-3 years before they begin full flowering. Division is best done in late autumn.
Cape lilies are easy to grow and require little maintenance as demonstrated by this huge clump decorating a roadside mail box.
Cape lilies, and other crinum lilies, are usually planted in perennial beds or borders or as stand-alone specimen plants left undisturbed to form large clumps. The longer they are in place, the more freely they flower; division is not required to maintain vigor, and the more over crowded they are, the more they bloom. Crinums adorned the lawns of the finest mansions as well as the poorest share cropper shacks, and old plantings still may be found marking the locations of abandoned homesites across the American cotton belt.
There are some 130 species in the genus Crinum, known simply as crinums or spider lilies. Only a few species are cultivated (see C. asiaticum), but hundreds of hybrids have been bred. The famous plantsman, Luther Burbank, created several crinum hybrids in his California gardens. C. americana, southern swamp lily, is a common flower in wetlands throughout the southeastern U.S., and the only crinum native to North America.
All parts of the crinum lilies are poisonous if ingested and the sap may cause skin eruptions.