A surprising addition to the pond - 
Crinum campanulatum

by Alberto Grossi, Italy
Click images to enlarge

About ten years ago I got a few bulbs from a South African nursery, and among them there was C. campanulatum. I knew nothing about it and I treated it the same as with all my African Crinums, potting it in sandy and dry soil. I can say that the bulb sprouted one leaf while two shrivelled. After a while I received a magazine from South Africa dealing with water plants: it was a real surprise to find among them C. campanulatum!

The next spring I dipped the pot in my little pond, just the pot, and after two weeks a robust flowering stalk appeared at the base of the leaves. In ten days the first bud opened as a bell-shaped (hence the specific name campanulatum) pink flower that darkened into a beautiful red one (or completely white in the alba form) in a few days. Since then I learned that one has to know where the plant comes from before cultivating. Now it is easier with internet. 

C. campanulatum white form >

It was described as C. campanulatum in Bot. Mag. 47 (1820), as a simple enumeration, then as C. aquaticum in Bot. Mag. 49 (1822) by William Herbert (nom. illeg.). The bulb had been collected by Burchell in Eastern Cape, South Africa, where it is endemic. The bulb is quite small, about 4cm (1.6") diameter and 7cm (2.7") long narrowing in a long neck. It offsets freely. The leaves are long to 1m (3.3'), linear and canaliculate. The inflorescence is 4-7 flowered; the petals are about 5cm (2") long and 2.5cm (1") broad; they have a powerful fragrance, smelling like Castanea. It is self-fertile and a lot of seeds are set.

C. campanulatum (marsh lily; vlei lelie in Afrikaans) naturally occurs in vleis, seasonal pans, around Grahamstown or in semi-permanently marshes on the coast, between Bathurst and East London, in full sun. In any case the bulbs grow and flower in different periods of the year depending from the rains, above all in spring. After the seeds mature, they fall and float on the water, remaining dormant. As soon as they dry off they begin to germinate. Cameron McMaster, the owner of African Bulbs, tested it artificially and concluded, "It is clear that while the seeds of Crinum campanulatum remain wet, germination is inhibited, but is stimulated as soon as they dry."

Image from
Curtis Botanical Magazine
Courtesy of
Missouri Botanical Garden

When the seeds touch the soil, a white root emerges from them growing into the soil. After a while a leaf is sprouted from the inflated base of the root. A blooming sized bulb can be expected after about 3-4 years. Another way to multiply this species is by detaching offsets from the mother bulb in spring and potting them in a mix of equal parts of coarse sand and common soil. 

It is an easy plant to grow, to make bloom and multiply. W. Herbert in his Amaryllidaceae, 1837, (I have forgotten to say that genus Crinum is in the family Amaryllidaceae, the whole transferred in the Alliaceae now) stated: "Dr. Burchell imagined that the spot on which he found it was always under water. He must, however, have been deceived in that respect, for it is very prone to rot, if incautiously watered. I lost three plants as a consequence of having placed them out of doors in front of a stove, where they cannot endure the cold dampness of the winter...it is certainly not an aquatic plant."

C. campanulatum is evergreen or deciduous, with a summer growing state and a resting one, usually dry, in winter. Where I live, Zone 8a, I have to store my pots, all of them clay, with C. campanulatum in my greenhouse where I keep just temperatures above 0°C (32°F) by night, while by day the sun warms it up. I give them a little water once a month. There the plants are evergreen and they put up new leaves.

Red and white forms together
At the beginning of the year I visited a friend of mine that lives on Riviera, Italy, Zone 9-10. Last year I sent her a few seeds and I saw the fine seedlings still in water. I think that bulbs have to experience a dry rest period or a cool period to bloom well. Cool and damp together do not suit them.  

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