The first time Crinum ‘Mrs. James Hendry” bloomed in my garden, I swore I would never again be without her luxuriant abundance and floral perfection. It’s a rare moment when undeniable beauty allies with indomitable constitution. Add indifference to soil and tolerance of fluctuating moisture and punishing heat, and I am enthralled. Here might be a plant to survive my careless hand! Finish the composition with a note of exotic, nocturnal fragrance and a mysterious, heirloom history, and I am lost.
As a group, crinums offer much where unpredictable rainfall, summer heat, poor soils, and occasional, if benign, neglect are the rules of the day. These big, lilylike amaryllids produce huge, deep-rooted bulbs that make them famously invulnerable to abuse. Their massive clumps of foliage and tall stalks of scented blooms appear reliably following rains. In California and the Gulf states, crinums enjoy the affectionate nickname “milk-and-wine lilies,” and their pink and white flowers turn up in cemeteries and semiabandoned homesteads, recklessly thriving without a tending hand.
A complaint is sometimes lodged against these bulbs because of their often unruly foliage and flower stalks, so tall and unstable that they flop unless staked. A tendency to produce small offsetting bulbs at the expense of flowers also plagues some of the more common garden crinums. In patrician contrast, ‘Mrs. James Hendry” avoids these tribal weaknesses. Her dark green leaves form tidy rosettes that slowly multiply into compact clumps of blooming-size bulbs, each sending up several sturdy flower stalks at intervals through the growing season. A single bulb can produce as many as eight scapes per year; thus a large clump of ‘Mrs. James Hendry” can be almost everblooming.
And what flowers! The precise umbels carry a dozen or more slender wine-colored buds as handsome as, but more generous than, a florist’s amaryllis. In typical crinum fashion, these open at dusk, expanding into blush-tinged funnels that emit an alluring perfume, like spice and magnolia combined. The blooms are better behaved than those of many other crinums, and cluster tightly together to face a common direction. The blossoms sit atop three-foot stems, creating a great effect in a garden, especially at dusk or in moonlight, but they also are tempting to cut. A single stalk placed in a vase perfumes a room for two weeks as the fresh buds continue to open each evening.
This magnificent flower is the horticultural legacy of Henry Nehrling, a gracious, learned man whose hybridization work at the turn of the century extended to all sorts of subtropical plants, especially bulbs like caladiums, amaryllis, and crinums. Asked how he endured his solitary life in the wilderness of central Florida, Nehrling replied, “a lover of Nature is sufficient unto himself wherever he may be, and for a plant enthusiast this is not a dull existence, but Paradise.” His creation, ‘Mrs. James Hendry’, ranks among the greatest treasures in my possession. Each time I inhale the perfume of her voluptuous flowers I tell myself, this is why I garden.