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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.
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.