Keep the Spring in Your Step by Planting Tropical Flowers

by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden

“April showers bring May flowers” was a phrase that I grew up with, and in upstate New York it always seemed to hold true. In that part of the country, May was the equivalent of a Central Texas March, the month when spring makes its biggest splash. Our average last frost date back in those pre-global warming days was May 15. I remember waiting impatiently for that day and for the first trip to the nursery that was sure to follow. I loved nurseries even then, my Mom would stock up on petunias and I’d go for the marigolds, zinnias, and ageratums.

Here in Central Texas, spring is usually in full retreat by May. Sure we get the occasional deluge which keeps everything green, but let face it, May is little more than a steam bath on our way to the oven. For years, I thought that May was a pretty dull time in the garden, a transition period that lacked the signature blooms of early spring.  However, some old fashioned tropical bulbs have put the spring back in my step, I now consider May a month to celebrate.

The first African American and Anglo gardeners in Austin came from parts further east and they brought some wonderful exotic bulbs along with them. Among these were the crinums, spider lilies, and cannas, plants that had long been favorites of antebellum gardeners. These perennial bulbs were garden centerpieces for decades, but towards the middle of the last century they fell from favor. They still graced the oldest neighborhoods of the city, but they no longer appealed to a new generation of gardeners who expected tidy evergreen foliage. These are lush, fleshy, tropical looking plants that tend to flop around; qualities that repelled folks in the fabulous ‘fifties but tend to excite contemporary gardeners who are always on the look-out for bold textures.

The crinums are a huge plant family that has been extensively tinkered with by folks anxious to come up with different flower colors and forms. The crinum bulbs themselves can be enormous. Local gardening author, Scott Ogden, an authority on garden bulbs, counts crinums among the “sexy” plants, because, after all, “size does matter.” The foliage of the crinums can be equally impressive in scale, sometimes resembling an octopus or squid with tentacle-like straps.

What I enjoy most about the crinums are the blooms which shoot up from the plants on tall spikes forming loose clusters. The flowers are usually shaped like trumpets, but there are also several varieties with long narrow petals that resemble spider lilies. An unknown garden-ian angel left a crinum bulb on my doorstep years ago. At first, I wasn’t sure what it was, but I planted it none-the-less. It bloomed the next year and I lit belated candles in thanks and praise. The flowers are a pale lavender-pink and have a delicious fragrance. When I moved, I divided the plant and brought its great grandclones along with me. I have since added a red crinum to my garden, another pass-along plant, and they both bloom every May. These plants are events, so my advice is to get over your fear of calimari and get out there and smell the crinums!

Spider lily is the common name for many flowering bulbs, so it is easy to get confused. The May blooming plants that I am referring to here are the various members of the Hymenocallis clan. These plants offer bold forms and ethereal blooms to our gardens. The foliage closely resembles that of the more familiar amaryllis, but on a larger scale. What sets the Hymenocallis apart are their flowers, which are a beautiful papery white and are shaped like stars (or for those with creepier imaginations, spiders.) The flower forms vary a bit from plant to plant, but these are uniformly tough plants that divide out regularly and can quickly fill large swaths of your garden. If you find one in your local nursery snag it because they are still quite rare. However, a small number of specialty growers now offer them on-line.

Canna lilies are the “Energizer” bunnies of this group of plants. They just keep blooming and blooming. They start blooming in May and often flower all the way through the summer. Because of this, cannas have always had their share of fans. A few of us secretly admired them even when the garden gliteratti sniffed at them as being far too vulgar. The foliage resembles a banana leaf and is often brightly colored or striped. The flower colors are uniformly HOT. Yellows splashed with red, orange, deep reds, and pinks. Cannas are now the favorites of water gardeners and folks who long for bold colors and dependable forms.

None of these plants are well adapted to super dry setting or thin soils. However, if you are gardening in clay, just add a little compost, bone meal, and water and all three of these plant families will become permanent additions to your garden. If May is the month where we surrender to the tropics, so be it! At least we have a few plants that know how to throw a party when things get hot!

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