foetid, but fantastic: growing eucomis, or pineapple lilies

eucomis pineapple liliesGIVE 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 bracts 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.

eucomis bicolor in a potThe 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.

pineapple lily john treasure and giant eucomisI 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.

john treasure eucomis detailsI 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.

pineapple lilies at…

  1. Ayo says:

    They are great looking plants– but for once I’m going to pass. My nose is so sensitive I’ve considered making a living as a truffle hunter!

  2. Joan weed says:

    I have never noticed a scent. Perhaps I haven’t bought the stinky ones. For storage, I pull them after frost and trim the leaves. Put them on a cardboard flat and into the basement. Been doing that for years. They all survive with no troubles.

  3. Sharon says:

    Question: if they are malodorous, where do you place yours to be able to see and enjoy them without feeling, um, queasy? :D

  4. Terri says:

    Love these! I haven’t noticed an odor. This is the first year I’ve put them in a pot. They grow so much better confined than they do in the soil. A beautiful addition to the deck. Love the idea of keeping them in the pot downstairs to over winter. I used to dig them up and put them in a paper grocery bag. I will be getting more next year!

  5. Brian O'Neil says:

    I overwintered my two dark leaf pineapple lilies in pots last winter. They grew great this year but alas no flowers. The leaves by themselves still look good though. They were in a pot with Dusty Millers, which surprisingly (to me anyway) made it through the overwintering to come back strong this season.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Brian. I’ve had some skip a year as I mentioned in another comment just now. And I am always astonished, too, when “annuals” stashed in the cellar in pots (just because there was something else int he pot I was actually tryin to store!) came back. Wacky!

  6. Danielle says:

    I absolutely love growing eucomis. They do have a pungent odor to them but I have found some that do not. Aloha lilies do not have that horrible odor. They actually have quiet a lovely scent. I purchased my eucomis bulbs from calbulbs.com. I’ve grown the purple one and had great success with it.

    1. margaret says:

      I’ve had some skip a year and I always wonder if they needed more nutrients while up and growing or something, Danielle. I repotted them the next early spring, and they did fine.

  7. Rodrica says:

    Thanks for introducing me to these in 2012. The four I bought bloomed initially, each in their own pot.I put them in the basement (60 degrees F). Last year no blooms. This year 4-6 blooms in each pot. Love them. Mine smell a little if you stick your nose right in them…not nearly as bad as my dog’s breath from four feet away.

  8. Sandie says:

    I received one as a gift last year. I took them out of the soil and had them laying in a pot all winter (I’m in Calif). I didn’t remember what they were but watered them and they started growing without any soil! I’m still enjoying them and haven’t done a thing with them except keep them in the shade and watered in a fiber pot (still no soil).

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Sandie. After 5 months dry in their pots in my cellar, they will often just start up on their own, so I know how resilient they can be. Bulbs — and all geophytes — are tough creatures!

  9. Carol says:

    I grow ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ and love the color, although the purple tends to fade to green later on in the season. I just wish the foliage would not tend to flop just after the flowers appear. Their form is great with so many plants.

  10. Dan Heims says:

    Eucomis Sparkling Burgundy / Oakhurst gets over 3′ tall in our Zone 7 garden. Check out the dwarves ‘Freckles’ and ‘Dark Star’. ‘Octopus’ appears to be the straight species. A number of Tugela Hybrids are available of NZ origin.
    ‘Zulu Flame’ is a new, broad-leaved, purple selection with large flowers. I too, have a sensitive nose and have never smelled any plant that I could classify as malodorous.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Dan — so nice to “see” you. I just bought two more goodies at Broken Arrow yesterday where I was lecturing: ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ and a dwarf that’s speckled and flat-growing like a starfish, just labeled as vandermerwei. Now you have added more to my wishlist! Interesting that they don’t smell bad to you, because at summer Open Days here I am always having to explain to people that no, nothing died. :)

      1. Brian O'Neil says:

        Haha I saw you with the burgundy pineapple lily at Broken Arrow yesterday. I stopped there on my way home from visiting family in Massachusetts and was surprised that the parking lot was so full for late August–didn’t know you were lecturing. I was getting that “Bluebird” hydrangea serrata you commented on. Fingers crossed that it performs fine in my Zone 5a garden in the northwestern Catskills.

  11. mindy says:

    margaret, i bet you had a great time at Broken Arrow yesterday! would love to hear about what new woodies you were able to take home…! I have been eating, breathing, sleeping, dreaming their catalogue the last 2 weeks, putting together an annual pickup from them in Sept. Coincidentally. I was, just today, ploughing through the plant list at Opus, whose Ed Bowen introduced that Rhode Island Red eucomis. He sells others as well:
    So interesting about the purported ‘odors’; i have never detected any on mine, whew!
    I particularly like the dark ppl leaved and the yellow leaved ones. Warren Leach at Tranquil Lake uses the latter by his cobalt blue entry columns- for great effect!

  12. Margaret says:

    I love sparkling burgundy and tugela jade. I have divided them so much that I left some in the ground last winter. Imagine my surprise when those big leaves came out of the ground this
    spring! I am a zone 5. They did not bloom but I have a friend who said hers had bloomed last year after she forgot to dig them. They might be tougher than we think.

  13. Teri Deger says:

    I need a bit more information. Could I leave my Sparkling Burgundy out in my just above freezing garage all winter? I do have a basement. What do you do in the spring? Cut it back? Or cut it back in the fall? (Zone 5.)

  14. Savagiana says:

    Could the odorous kind keep wildlife away from my flowerbeds? I have problems with rabbits, deer, squirrels, skunks,and raccoons.
    I used fox urine this summer, but that just about killed me with its odor and has to be reapplied after every rain. Suggestions?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Savigiana. I have never read that they are used for that, no. I’m afraid that fencing and netting is really the only sure thing with the pests you mention.

  15. Lisa says:

    I just planted 3 of the Sparkling Burgundy this season, but it was after it had flowered. I really hope it doesn’t smell considering I have it around the foundation of my house! Ugh!!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Lisa. I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing it in flower yet (or smelling it!) as I just got my first ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ one this fall. We will find out together next summer!

      1. margaret says:

        Let the leaves keep growing because they will sustain the bulb below, which you can stash for next year (or leave in the ground over winter if you are somewhere where it’s hardy). I bring my pots into the cellar in Zome 5B and then in spring divide/repot them.

  16. midin says:

    ta very much for the essential info on the little stinker once again the ifo you realy need
    a fan from over the pond

  17. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern says:

    How convenient this post is as I have three Pineapple Lily bulbs started and looking good. I will pot them up and put them in the cellar this winter – so good to know and exactly what I’m looking for as I now escape winters. I am excited to see them bloom but I think I will opt to put them a little further out in the garden rather than on the steps because ooo ooo that smell – which I will have to find out for myself soon I hope. Thank you! Your collection, as always, looks gorgeous!

  18. Dorthe Hviid says:

    We grow both Eucomis bicolor and Eucomis comosa ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ in the ground at Berkshire Botanical Garden, Stockbridge, MA – zone 5b, and we leave them in the ground all year round. The Eucomis bicolor petered out after about 18-20 years, maybe because the location had gotten too shady for its liking. When we planted Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ in another garden and left it to over-winter outside as a test, we were surprised when it came back next summer. That is now five years ago. Not only does it come back every year, it is spreading: from the initial three plants there were 7-8 flower stalks last summer. What a beauty.

    1. margaret says:

      Well, Dorthe, now you have challenged me to set my babies free! Everywhere I have read about it always says Zone 7 or even warmer…and I have always only know it as a pot plant here (friends grow it in the ground in the city). It would certainly be much happier with more room. Thanks for the heads-up, neighbor.

  19. JohnK says:

    Hello Margaret, and your many followers, “EUCOMIS LEAF-CUTTINGS”
    I have just enjoyed reading your article about Eucomis (Pineapple Lily). My large pot of eucomis bicolour is currently attracting plenty of flies with its particular “fragrance”. I read through the many comments from your interested readers and (unless I missed it) I was surprised that there appeared to be no mention of the quite successful option of propagating these plants from leaf-cuttings. As with some other leaf-cutting propagations the technique is most successful when using leaf sections taken from near the base of the leaf. An on-line search for “Eucomis leaf-cuttings” (I tend to search using the image search option) will quickly lead to many discussions of this option but a “gritty / course” propagation media appears to work best. The “bulblets” produced using this technique will have at least a season headstart over seed-raised babies. It is an interesting propagation option for a small number of bulb varieties including lachenalias. I would not suggest removing too many leaves from the bulb but on a mature bulb a couple of healthy leaves should not adversely affect the bulb and a considerable number of small bulblets can be produced. Eucomis can also be raised from seed, however both techniques require some patience as it may take several years to reach flowering size. Kind regards from New Zealand.

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