for the love of pineapple lilies: eucomis, with jenks farmer
I’M CRAZY ABOUT pineapple lilies, bulbs in the genus Eucomis. And though in my zone 5 garden, they aren’t hardy, I can’t imagine a growing season without pots full of them. In his South Carolina garden and the ones he makes for design clients, Jenks Farmer can use them even more lavishly as perennials and beds and even meadows, so Eucomis (no matter where you garden) were the subject of our latest conversation.
Jenks Farmer, a longtime horticulturist and garden designer, is also a writer with several books to his credit and a Substack newsletter that I’m really enjoying and more to come. He’s founder of Jenks Farmer, Plantsman, which makes gardens for clients and is also a mail-order nursery specializing in unusual bulbs.
Read along as you listen to the May 15, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
Quick note: Because the longtime local radio-station engineer who records and edits my podcasts has been ill, this one has some little bloopers where Jenks and I interrupt each other and such … hopefully those won’t spoil anything for you. Thanks for understanding!
eucomis, with jenks farmer
Margaret Roach: Hi, Jenks. I’m so glad to talk to you again as always. How are you?
Jenks Farmer: Hey, Margaret. I am great. I’m happy to be here and especially to talk about Eucomis.
When we started this kind of running conversation that we’ve had about Eucomis, I really thought, “I don’t know that there’s enough about Eucomis.” They’re pretty simple. But it’s been fun to delve into them and to hear a lot about how you grow them as container plants.
Margaret: And so you’re what, Zone 8 or some crazy old thing down there?
Jenks: We are Zone 8.
Margaret: Yeah. I’m not. I’m definitely not. I’m a 5. So just a backstory for people, a month or so ago, you and I did a “New York Times” garden column together, and it was kind of like a love poem to pineapple lilies, but from the two very different places and grown in two very different ways, because yours don’t spend winter in the basement, do they, like mine do?
Jenks: No, no, we don’t have basements, Margaret.
Margaret: Oh, sorry. No basements. O.K.
Jenks: No basements. We would have big puddles of water in our basements. No, we are very flat and very warm. So our, let’s see, even in April or in the beginning of May, our Eucomis are already up out the ground probably 6 inches.
Margaret: Wow, O.K. So they’re happy. And I mean, they’re native. There’s different species, but they’re native to different areas in Southern Africa, I believe. Yes?
Jenks: Yes. I would love to see them in Southern Africa. What I know about them there, I’ve read and done lots of, oh, Google research, I guess you would say, and read through old books. I think we tend to think of South Africa as a hot and dry place because those are the iconic climates and ecozones there. But the Eucomis come from all different kinds of habitats, apparently, including those hot, dry habitats, but also some shady streamside places.
Margaret: Right, in uplands, some in higher altitudes; all kinds of different environments. And I think you told me that. And some of those places are summer—what do they call that? Summer rainfall areas. So some of the species can put up with being wet, which you don’t think of a bulb as liking that, right? [Above, ‘John Treasure’.]
Jenks: Yeah. Most bulbs, well, not most bulbs, there are lots of bulbs that grow in wet areas, but the ones that we know most commonly, the ones that we love such as daffodils and tulip and even odder, more specialized things, tend to like dry or typical garden settings. And Eucomis do great like that. The ones that I grow, anyway. But I’ve had some that’ll grow in wet areas. And flooding places are an important part of our climate. So to have a plant that thrives there is always a relief.
Margaret: Yeah, that’s for sure. And for me, in the other kind of a climate, to have a plant that’s very showy—and we should talk about what we love about their looks. And even though it’s not hardy, I can easily, year to year to year—and I’ve had some of my bulbs and their offsets many, many, many years. These are as easy as say, cannas, for instance. These are not tricky. These are not going to give you a hard time storing them, sleeping. And so that’s what’s great is that they are easy despite, for both of us, despite our very different way of having to handle them. So it’s kind of cool.
Jenks: Yeah. Easy and beautiful.
Margaret: Yeah. So let’s talk about beautiful. I mean, they’re called pineapple lilies, so what’s that about?
Jenks: Well, you know how common names are. I guess if you have a really good imagination, they kind of look like a pineapple lily. Right at the top of the stalk of flowers [above, on E. bicolor, for instance], there’s a little tuft of leaflets that looks like the top of a pineapple. So the general flower description is a stalk that’s usually about a half an inch around or so. And all up and down that stalk are hundreds of buds, and each bud opens to a star-shaped flower. And then the top of the stalk has this little tuft of hair.
Margaret: Right. And so it looks like the fruit of a pineapple, but a pineapple’s a bromeliad. And these are not bromeliads. I think they’re related to hyacinths. I don’t know, I get so confused with taxonomy because it’s like, I think they’re in the asparagus family, or I don’t know, or the order. I’m completely lost. But I think they are cousins of hyacinths, aren’t they? They’re related to hyacinths.
Jenks: I think so.
Jenks: Yeah, I think so. But they would certainly be a hyacinth on steroids because most of them, most of the ones that I grow, anyway, are not huge, but their leaves will get to say 18 inches maybe long and the flower scapes go from 18 inches, some of them up to 28 or sometimes taller.
Margaret: Right. And so those leaves—I mean, for me, one of the things I love about them, or maybe the thing I love, I don’t know what I love the most. Anyway, there’s no accounting for our plant obsessions is there?
Margaret: But the first one I grew was that more common one, Eucomis bicolor, the one that’s kind of stinky [above]. It smells like rotting flesh or roadkill or something, to attract fly pollinators and so forth. But even it has, the leaves are not just long-ish, but they’re freckled and they are wide, and they’re just beautiful. It’s like this whole ruff of… this whole nest that the stem sits in. Do you know what I mean? It goes all the way around. It’s not just a couple of leaves. There’s a lot. And they’re just beautiful. So from the minute it kind of leafs out, I’m happy with the plant. And some of them even more so.
Jenks: I love your description of them sitting in a nest. And if you think about the common houseplant, the bird’s nest fern—in a way, they look a little bit like that. The leaves are generally more narrow, but they have that same sort of tuft or that nest.
And the foliage can go from clear emerald green to dark burgundy. There are even some that have a kind of pale, golden cast. The foliage for me is really important in the garden because of that wider leaf. They’re 2, sometimes 3 inches wide, and it’s narrow, but it adds a lot of contrast in the garden, especially with finer perennials and especially with grasses.
Margaret: Right, exactly. Grasses, again, have a long foliage, linear foliage, but it’s much finer typically. So this is a broader and glossier and different-colored, different shades of green and purple and so forth. Yeah, they’re pretty fantastic. And as I said, I love all the freckled and speckled ones. They have kind of animal-skin patterns some of them [above]. Those are my favorites. And it can be on the stems. It can be under the leaves, I think. They’re just surprising, and so I kind of like everything about them. And then when the flowers are finished, they’re not really finished, are they? I mean, technically they are, but they still look good to me, don’t you think?
Jenks: They lose the vibrancy of each individual flower, but the form stays the same [below, a faded flower stalk]. So you still have that long sphere of texture in the garden. For us, until the end of July or August, they look awesome. The bigger ones especially can kind of get heavy and flop over after that. But one of the things that makes them a really… sorry, you all.
Margaret: That’s O.K.
Jenks: One of the things that makes them a flexible and particularly useful garden plant is that you can cut them at any point and they’ll keep that form and mostly the color for a month or more.
Margaret: So as a cut flower, you mean? Wow. O.K.
Margaret: Yeah. That would be pretty dramatic looking.
Jenks: One of the things that we do on our farm is to test new plants, and especially things that I want to use in garden design, but I need to know before I put them in somebody’s garden that they’re going to thrive. And over the past eight years or so, there’s been a movement to use pineapple lilies as cut flowers. And there’s been a lot of work in developing new hybrids, new colors and new sizes, and making sure that we don’t have any of that stinky one mixed in for the cut flowers.
Margaret: No, my favorite Eucomis bicolor’s not allowed.
Jenks: Well, I mean, it depends on the kind of party you’re taking cut flowers to, I guess.
Margaret: I guess. Right.
Jenks: So we started four or five years ago testing a lot of these cut-flower cultivars to see if they were garden-worthy, because the two goals are often not the same when somebody’s doing…
Margaret: Boy, that’s for sure.
Jenks: Yeah. And you get tricked I think sometimes. When hybridizers are doing work for the cut-flower industry, they’re very focused on production. And that production often takes place in greenhouses or in covered houses. So the flower doesn’t have to deal with the elements. And they’re focused then on post-production and shipping, and not necessarily on the genetics of something that would make a plant a great garden perennial.
Jenks: So we’ve had a lot of fun testing all these cultivars.
Margaret: Right. Do you remember the first Eucomis you grew? Do you know which one it was?
Jenks: I think it was probably ‘Sparkling Burgundy.’ [Above.]
Margaret: Oh, really? O.K. So that’s a Tony Avent of Plant Delights’ introduction from, I forget when, but a number of years ago. And that kind of shook things up for the pineapple lilies. That was a dramatic plant. So sort of describe what—and you use that in gardens and so forth—sort of describe it and what you do with it.
Jenks: So it was the first of the cultivars that I was aware of that had really deep burgundy, kind of mahogany, leaf. It has a shiny leaf and then the flower and the stalk has a burgundy cast to it. So that contrast that I was talking about earlier in the garden is intensified when you have a dark color that stands out against lots of greens. So that one for me was a real eye-opener. And the other benefit is that it’s a really strong perennial, at least in our climate. So it multiplies well, and you can go from one bulb that’s…
Usually, the bulbs that I start with are about… they fit into your hand like a little satsuma orange or something. And so you can go from that. And then over the years, those start putting off little side pups, and you get a clump that’s eventually as big as say a daylily.
Margaret: And you showed me a picture [above] of it that almost looks like a meadow. And you look out into the distance and there’s, as you said, grasses and other more expected plants. But then there’s this broad but long, arching purple foliage of these ‘Sparkling Burgundy,’ for instance. And it’s just so different. It just draws your eye out into these beautiful plantings that are kind of wildish looking.
Jenks: I do a lot of naturalistic plantings. And I’m afraid to call them meadows, because meadows don’t really do so great in the deep South.
Jenks: But in those naturalistic plantings, I want to see what I call some fireworks, some things that let people know that this is a cultivated planting—that this is intentional, that this is a garden. It’s not just grasses and wildflowers I’m kind of growing in a matrix.
So that garden that you were talking about, we did a meadow using native grasses like broomsedge. We even used little pine trees. So long-leaf pines are beautiful when they’re small. They look like these little tufts of emerald green strings. Then mixed in the lower level was a tiny rain lily, tiny pink rain lilies. And to add the contrast, to add the fireworks to all of that were these clumps of the burgundy, the ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ pineapple lily.
Margaret: Yeah, it was really… I mean, just because again it’s a plant that I have, but I have mine on the patio in a pot and then in my basement the rest of the year, it was like, “Really, wow.” There it was just stretching its legs and spreading and just being so beautiful out there in the open. So I loved that.
Jenks: I’m curious about how you keep them in your basement. Can we switch to that?
Jenks: Do you take a pot inside and let it go dormant and leave them in the dirt?
Margaret: Yeah. So everybody that I, all my as I would say, “investment plants”—things that I’m going to have for many years, or I hope to have for many years that are not hardy here and that are not adaptable to being grown on as a houseplant, for instance—I gradually dry them down and I’ll move them from out in the garden to the porch, where it has a roof so they’re not getting rained on anymore. I let them sort of dry before the super-cold weather comes.
And then they’ll go to sleep, I’ll cut them back, and then I’ll carry the pots of these pretty much dormant things into the cellar. And they just sit there. I even stack them up. I mean, it’s like they don’t even seem to care. Some things are harder to do that with than others, but Eucomis and then voodoo lilies, which we both also love, the Amorphophallus, and I also love the Sauromatum [above], those are dead-easy to do, too, this way.
The other thing is you can take them out of their pots. If you had big pots and you don’t want to carry it down some stairs or something, you could unpot them and just store them dry. But what I tend to do is leave them in their pots and then every second year or so I unpot them, because they’ve taken up all the space. They seem to multiply and they’ve exhausted their resources in the confines of the pot. So I’ll kind of divide them somewhat and then pick same-sized bulbs and put those all in one pot. And then the smaller ones I’ll put in a different pot with fresh soil.
But they don’t seem to miss a beat. I’ve never lost any. I’d never had decay or mold or rot or anything. And my basement is not super-dry and it can go down to 40, but it’s frequently around 50 in the winter because there is a furnace down there. Not that it’s heating down there, but there’s a little heat from it. And it’s underground. But it’s an old, 140-year-old, house. It’s nothing fancy. So they do real well. They do real well. And as I said, I’ve had some of them or their offsets for 15-plus years easily.
Jenks: Wow, that is a great investment plan, isn’t it?
Margaret: Well, right. And the canna is the same thing. I mean, for me, they’re rock hard. They don’t rot. They’re fine. I’m a little more iffy with dahlias; I can have a little bit of mold or loss. They’re a little more juicy. So you have to be a little more careful, though it’s totally doable. I’m just saying, the voodoo lilies, the cannas, and the Eucomis are just—anybody could do it I think. I think they’re…
Jenks: We do some tropical bulbs like that. We’ll do some of the bigger dahlias and caladiums for sure. But those things, you have to add a little fungicide and it’s a bit of a pain. So honestly, I don’t do it all that much because they tend to rot.
Margaret: Well, because your temperature, like you said, and you don’t have a cellar, for instance, so you don’t have a place that stays say 40 something degrees all winter, right? You don’t have that kind of a spot, do you?
Jenks: No, I would put them in a barn, which means the temperature fluctuates. [Below, ‘Tugela Jade.’]
Margaret: Right, right, right. So yeah.
Jenks: And that may be part of the problem. That may be where we get a lot of rot.
Margaret: I think that, yeah, yeah, yeah. Interesting. Yeah. So I wanted to just ask about some others that you really like. I know that you grow a couple or different kinds that have green flowers. And you’ve made me laugh when you told me once that customers don’t want to buy green flowers, and yet they’re so gorgeous. So what about those?
Jenks: Yeah. Well, you know the old gardener’s trope is that green flowers are for the jaded.
Margaret: Oh, dear. Oh, boy.
Jenks: I’m sorry, I had to say that. I learned that from one of our mutual friends, Glenn Withey, out on the West Coast.
Margaret: Oh, yes. Sure.
Jenks: I love pole-evansii [above] and pallidiflora. And I think those two are actually the same. Maybe one’s a subspecies of the other. There’s a new cultivar that’s called ‘Green With Envy.’
Jenks: These are, they’re kind of lime, limey, so they’re bright. They stand out in the garden, and especially when you mix them with intense colors. I have some cornflowers or bachelor’s buttons that bring those blues, and I tried them one year. I was just in a hurry gardening. And so we have a big row of green ones; it’s 75 feet of green flowers. And we have garden tours and I had to get something in, so I used a red salvia, and it sounds like it would be a terrible combination, but…
Margaret: Christmas, right?
Jenks: … it’s really cool. Yeah, a little Christmas in July.
Jenks: So I think the greens are my favorite. There are a couple of other smaller burgundies that I like a lot. One’s called ‘Coco.’ It’s really hard to come by. And ‘Maraschino Cherry.’ And those two last ones are ones that we’ve tried from the cut-flower industry that have done really well.
Margaret: Yeah, I mean, I just want to try them.
Jenks: The ones I have problems with though are the little tiny ones that are really seductive. And I try and try to get them. They have 6-inch- long leaves and they’re spotted, like you were talking about.
Margaret: Yes, yes.
Jenks: Like leopard-skin spots.
Margaret: Like the ‘Tiny Piny’ series. Yeah.
Jenks: Yeah. All of those I just lose, and I don’t know if that’s because of their genetics or, as I’ve told you, I just like big plants. And in our climate, plants tend to get big and sprawl, and maybe I just smother those out.
Margaret: Yeah. And for me, they do well in pots but that sort of makes sense because they’re precious and I’m giving them the little world to live in and I’m taking care, you know what I mean? They’re not out competing against other things, out in the world.
You have this thing for specialty bulbs. And so I’m looking in the catalog or on your website, and like I said, we both have a passion for the voodoo lilies, the Amorphophallus, which again, have those animal spots. You have something called blood lily, Haemanthus [below].
Jenks: Hey, I just sent you some blood lilies. Blood lilies would, yes… Yeah, get another pot and find some more room in the basement.
Jenks: So they have these softball-sized brilliant red flowers. And for us, they’re a perennial. The flowers though, the flowers don’t show up until the end of July. So in doubt, every year somebody will call me and say, “My blood lilies didn’t come back.” Like, “No, just hang on. They’re just not ready for you yet.”
Jenks: So they’re grown all around the world and especially in Northern Europe as a container plant. And because they have handsome leaves, it can continue looking good into the winter. People will take them into the house and use them as a houseplant.
Margaret: Oh, O.K. Oh, I’m going to read about it. That’s totally interesting. And I mean, you have all kinds of other things, the Hymenocallis, the spider lilies.
And then of course, your main thing, Crinum, which we talked about [on a previous podcast] and you wrote a book about. We talked about that on our last podcast together. But the Crinums, are a lot of people adopting a Crinum, one of your many Crinum?
Jenks: Yeah, definitely. When I started with Crinum 30 years ago, I could hardly give them away because people thought of, well, people here thought of them as kind of old country plants. They were a little white trash. And then people in Northern places, into Northern places would say, “Hey, no, they won’t work for us.” So I started shipping them to friends in Baltimore area, and we now have them growing in Pittsburgh and all up on Long Island and into the Midwest, but probably not as cold as you are, probably say in the parts of zone 6. But to do that, you have to pick the right species. [A field of Crinum at Jenks’s farm, above.]
Margaret: Right. Right. And you have quite the assortment to choose from that’s for sure. Yeah. Well, Jenks, as you know, I could just talk to you all the time, forever, about all these crazy things that we both love, and adopt more things that I’ve never tried, and hopefully maybe turn you on to some that you haven’t tried. So thank you for making time. Thanks for taking time out of the garden today to talk, and I hope I’ll talk to you again soon.
Jenks: Definitely. Thank you.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 14th year in March 2023. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the May 15, 2023 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).