foetid, but fantastic: growing eucomis, or pineapple lilies
GIVE ME A PLANT that looks otherworldly for many weeks in summer through fall, but is happy to sit in its pot, dry and sleeping, in my cellar all winter here in Zone 5B, asking nothing. Give me Eucomis, the pineapple lilies—and the bigger and odder, the better.
The only bad thing I have to say about pineapple lilies—whose genus name means “well-haired” or “lovely haired” because of the crown-like tuft of brachts topping the flowerhead–should be mentioned right up front: Some of these hyacinth relatives (including popular E. biciolor) smell bad; like, really bad. Like something died.
Maybe this explains why: Certain species of Eucomis flowers are pollinated almost by flies who are attracted to the sulphur compounds in those types, scents attractive to carrion flies. (A couple of Eucomis species are instead attractive to Pompilid or spider wasps, and though the flowers look very much the same, the fragrance compounds are not.)
If you’re a flower needing to reproduce and survive, you had better make yourself attractive to the right insect somehow: color maybe, or flower shape, or scent. Smelling like a dead body is the secret in the case of some pineapple lilies. Thankfully many, including E. comosa, aren’t so stinky, and are even used in the cut-flower industry. The trade publication “Greenhouse Product News” recommends ‘Sparkling Burgundy’, ‘Can Can’, ‘Reuben’, ‘Tugela Jade’, ‘Tugela Ruby’ and ‘Kilamonjaro’ for cut-flower use, noting that the foliage of ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ can also be harvested.
The aroma of even the fly-attracting ones doesn’t stop me, and I’ve grown pots of the most common Eucomis, medium-sized E. bicolor (above), for years. This year I declared it the start of a collection, and added a couple more.
My later choices included descendants of little Eucomis vandermerwei (the dwarf pineapple lily, with some offspring like ‘Octopus’ now barely 6 inches high, and the Tiny Piny types) to ones with E. pallidiflora genetics, the well-named giant pineapple lily, which the Pacific Bulb Society says includes some subspecies with flowers to 6 feet when mature. There are 10 known species of pineapple lily, plus hybrids; I’ve barely gotten started with my paltry three.
I adopted a big pot labeled “giant pineapple lily” from my wholesaler friends at Landcraft Environments, and it topped 3 feet, with white blooms and lusty green foliage (above right). ‘John Treasure,’ another recent addition with purplish flowers and tinged foliage (above left), got to 2½.
The bulb’s age, and growing conditions, will affect height of the flower, or whether you get flowers at all. Many Eucomis come from areas in South Africa where there is summer rain, so I offer sun and don’t deprive them moisture once up and growing, but am careful to avoid waterlogging, such as they might if a saucer were beneath them.
I like more than just the flowers of pineapple lilies. I like the lush leaves; the stems (which can be dark-colored or mottled, too), and even the showy seedheads, after the long-lasting flowers are gone. (Above, showy leaves and seedheads of ‘John Treasure.’)
Next I’m on the prowl for some little guys, land also for some with dramatic, darker foliage, such as ‘Sparkling Burgundy,’ which Tony Avent at Plant Delights selected in 1983. Unless I adopt the next ones from a nursery that sells them already potted and growing, though, I’ll be waiting until spring to order more, since loose bulbs are not sold in fall.
Many Eucomis are Zone 7ish hardy (with E. bicolor, catalogs often say 6 if deeply planted and well mulched in winter). But as I say: I grow them in pots here in 5B. Every other year, I give them fresh potting soil in earliest spring,so they don’t get overcrowded and fail to bloom, but otherwise, not much to do—except wait for their welcome, though often late, reawakening.