Blooms for the festive season

This Cardiocrinum giganteum var. yunnanense in Mark Joel’s Dunedin garden was planted 15 years...
This Cardiocrinum giganteum var. yunnanense in Mark Joel’s Dunedin garden was planted 15 years ago. PHOTO: MARK JOEL
Gillian Vine carols about her three favourite Christmas flowers.

The attractive seed heads of Cardiocrinum follow the flowers. PHOTO: GILLIAN VINE
The attractive seed heads of Cardiocrinum follow the flowers. PHOTO: GILLIAN VINE
A Mosgiel reader phoned recently to say her giant lily was in flower for the first time in 15 years and she thought it well worth the wait.

At 2m, Helen Crothers’ Cardiocrinum giganteum looks impressive but is, she says, less than the 3.5m the Himalayan beauty can achieve.

We owe its presence in the West to a Danish-born doctor, Nathaniel Wallich, who, in 1817, became director of the Calcutta Botanic Garden. Sneaky Nathaniel had local people collect specimens from areas off-limits to Europeans, and among the many plants he sent to England was C. giganteum. Frustrated by seeds losing viability on the long journey, he experimented with packing them in containers of brown sugar — a sweet success, one might say.

Helen’s original plant came from her sister, who lives at Peel Forest, where thousands of the sweetly perfumed lilies are a tourist attraction in December.

"My sister always called it Mt Peel lily but that’s not correct," says Helen, a former garden-centre worker.

The heart-shaped leaves are a Cardiocrinum feature. PHOTO: GILLIAN VINE
The heart-shaped leaves are a Cardiocrinum feature. PHOTO: GILLIAN VINE
Originally classified a Lilium but now in its own genus, Cardiocrinum differs from other lilies, having heart-shaped leaves. The other main difference is that the shade-loving plant dies after flowering, leaving a ring of "pups" that can take seven years or longer to bloom. Leave the flowers to go to seed and the stem produces handsome pods.

A subspecies, C. giganteum var. yunnanense has dark purple stems and Dunedin gardener Mark Joel has a splendid patch, now 15 years old.

Mark has a tip for growers of Cardiocrinum, saying it responds well to a helping of wood ash "if you can get it".

The Madonna lily symbolises Mary’s purity. PHOTO: GILLIAN VINE
The Madonna lily symbolises Mary’s purity. PHOTO: GILLIAN VINE
Among the true lilies, I’m known for singing the praises of Lilium candidum, known as the Madonna lily. Endemic to the Middle East and the Balkans, long before the birth of Christ it was used as a fodder plant — the bulbs are apparently edible, although I’m reluctant to try.

White lilies became synonymous with Mary’s purity and chastity, so were widely used in religious manuscripts and paintings, such as William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s 1899 Madonna of the Lilies.

The original habitat of this white, scented Christmas lily appears to have been semi-desert areas, so it loves hot, dry ground and thus is a brilliant choice for Central Otago.

Helen Crothers’ Cardiocrinum giganteum has flowered after a 15-year hiatus. PHOTO: GILLIAN VINE
Helen Crothers’ Cardiocrinum giganteum has flowered after a 15-year hiatus. PHOTO: GILLIAN VINE
Because of its reputation for being virus-prone, it is rarely offered commercially, so it may be a matter of asking around at garden club meetings for a bulb, a few scales or seed.

Irises, too, have Christian symbolism, although Easter rather than Christmas, as they start flowering in spring in the northern hemisphere and purple is associated with Christ’s Passion.

Here, English irises (Iris latifolia) are the perfect complement to Madonna lilies at Christmas. Members of the Xiphium group, they are not English at all but come from valleys in the Pyrenees mountains that separate France and Spain.

Cardiocrinum giganteum var. yunnanense has distinctive dark stems. PHOTO: MARK JOEL
Cardiocrinum giganteum var. yunnanense has distinctive dark stems. PHOTO: MARK JOEL
The flowers come in shades of blue or violet, or white. There are no yellow forms, unlike the earlier-flowering Dutch and Spanish irises, which also belong to the Xiphium group.

Like all bulbous irises, they do best in rich soil that remains damp in summer but does not turn into a bog in winter. The leaves die down about a month after flowering and then can be cut close to ground level. Fill the gaps with easy-care summer annuals, such as cosmos, to hide the bare ground and suppress weeds.

English irises complement Madonna lilies at Christmas. PHOTO: GILLIAN VINE
English irises complement Madonna lilies at Christmas. PHOTO: GILLIAN VINE
My favourite English iris is a mid-blue that dates back to the 1930s. It was introduced by Blue Mountain Nurseries founder Stanley Hughes and remains a high-health bulb ideal for southern gardens.

Who needs a poinsettia that is unlikely to survive until next Christmas when we’ve three garden queens like these?

 - This is my final garden feature for this year. I wish readers a blessed Christmas, safe holidays and a bright 2021.

 

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