Sparrow and Finch Gardening for the love of pineapple lilies farmer

for the love of pineapple lilies farmer

I’M CRAZY ABOUT pineapple lilies, bulbs in the genus Eucomis. And though in my zone 5 garden, they aren’t hardy; I can’t imagine a growing season without pots full of them. In his South Carolina garden and the ones he makes for design clients, Jenks Farmer can use them even more lavishly as perennials, beds, and even meadows, so Eucomis (no matter where you garden) were the subject of our latest conversation.

Jenks Farmer, a longtime horticulturist and garden designer, is also a writer with several books to his credit, a Substack newsletter that I’m really enjoying, and more to come. He’s founder of Jenks Farmer, Plantsman, which makes gardens for clients and is also a mail-order nursery specializing in unusual bulbs.

Read along as you listen to the May 15, 2023, edition of my public radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

Quick note: Because the longtime local radio station engineer who records and edits my podcasts has been ill, this one has some little bloopers where Jenks and I interrupt each other and such … hopefully those won’t spoil anything for you. Thanks for understanding!

eucomis, with jenks farmer

Use the Up/Down Arrow keys to increase or decrease volume.Margaret Roach: Hi, Jenks. I’m so glad to talk to you again, as always. How are you?

Jenks Farmer: Hey, Margaret. I am great. I’m happy to be here and especially to talk about Eucomis.

When we started this kind of running conversation that we’ve had about Eucomis, I really thought, “I don’t know that there’s enough about Eucomis.” They’re pretty simple. But it’s been fun to delve into them and to hear a lot about how you grow them as container plants.

Margaret: So you’re what, Zone 8 or some crazy old thing down there?

Jenks: We are Zone 8.

Margaret: Yeah. I’m not. I’m definitely not. I’m a 5. So just a backstory for people, a month or so ago, you and I did a “New York Times” garden column together, and it was kind of like a love poem to pineapple lilies, but from the two very different places and grown in two very different ways, because yours don’t spend winter in the basement, do they, like mine do?

Jenks: No basements. We would have big puddles of water in our basements. No, we are very flat and very warm. So, let’s see, even in April or at the beginning of May, our Eucomis are already up out the ground, probably 6 inches.

Margaret: Wow, O.K. So they’re happy. And I mean, they’re native. There are different species, but they’re native to different areas in Southern Africa, I believe. Yes?

Jenks: Yes. I would love to see them in Southern Africa. What I know about them there, I’ve read and done lots of, oh, Google research, I guess you would say, and read through old books. South Africa is a hot and dry place because those are the iconic climates and ecozones there. But the Eucomis come from all different kinds of habitats, apparently, including those hot, dry habitats, but also some shady streamside places.

Margaret: Right, in uplands, some in higher altitudes, all kinds of different environments. And I think you told me that. And some of those places are summer–what do they call that? Summer rainfall areas. So some of the species can put up with being wet, which you don’t think of a bulb as like that, right? [Above, ‘John Treasure’. ]

Jenks: Yeah. Most bulbs, well, not most bulbs; there are lots of bulbs that grow in wet areas, but the ones that we know most commonly, the ones that we love such as daffodils and tulips and even odder, more specialized things, tend to like dry or typical garden settings. And Eucomis do great like that. The ones that I grow, anyway. But I’ve had some that’ll grow in wet areas. And flooding places are an important part of our climate. So to have a plant that thrives there is always a relief.

Margaret: Yeah, that’s for sure. And for me, in the other kind of a climate, to have a plant that’s very showy–and we should talk about what we love about their looks. And even though it’s not hardy, I can easily, year to year to year–and I’ve had some of my bulbs and their offsets many, many, many years. These are as easy as, say, cannas, for instance. These are not tricky. These are not going to give you a hard time storing them, sleeping. And so that’s what’s great is that they are easy despite, for both of us, despite our very different way of having to handle them. So it’s kind of cool.

Margaret: Yeah. So let’s talk about beauty. They’re called pineapple lilies, so what’s that about?

Jenks: Well, you know how common names are. If you have a perfect imagination, they look like a pineapple lily. Right at the top of the stalk of flowers [above, on E. bicolor, for instance], there’s a little tuft of leaflets that looks like the top of a pineapple. The general flower description is a stalk about half an inch around or so. And all up and down that stalk are hundreds of buds, each opening to a star-shaped flower. And then the top of the stalk has this little tuft of hair.

Margaret: Right. And so it looks like the fruit of a pineapple, but a pineapple’s a bromeliad. And these are not bromeliads. They’re related to hyacinths. I don’t know; I get so confused with taxonomy because it’s like, they’re in the asparagus family, or I don’t know, or the order. I’m completely lost. But they are cousins of hyacinths, aren’t they

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