Sunday, July 13, 2014

If you like pineapple lilies, you'll love Eucomis vandermerwei

Eucomis vandermerwei is currently
on display in Kew's Alpine House.
I love the purple spotted foliage!
When I first laid my eyes on a pineapple lily (Eucomis), it was love at first sight.  The bold foliage, the unique flower, and the really striking growth habit all do something for me.  My first experience was when Dr. Susan Hamilton had me do a mass planting of Eucomis comosa 'Sparkling Burgundy' in the back 40 of the University of Tennessee Gardens.  If I recall correctly, we had a little more than a dozen 3 inch pots left over from a plant sale, and we needed to find a home for them in the gardens.  The last time I strolled through the area, they were still there, bold and bright as could be.  In most gardens, pineapple lilies are usually planted singly as a focal point or foil, but en masse they're really something to shout about.

Last week, the interns at Kew were given a tour of the Alpine House, and I was head over heels all over again -- this time with Eucomis vandermerwei (2011-1894, RDRE).

It looks like a pineapple

This pineapple lily is unlike any other I've ever seen.  It has really attractive purple and green spotted foliage, and the leaves are a bit more strappy than the other species that I've seen before. Although it is given the common name because its flower looks a bit like a pineapple, the habit and foliage reminds me of pineapple plant too.

Both the common name and the scientific name describe the plant's unusual flower.  Eucomis is derived from the Greek meaning something like beautiful hair in a "top knot" style (Pearse, 38).

Native Range

In Mountain splendour: Wild flowers of the Drakensberg, Reginald Pearse describes the Eucomis as, "Essentially an African genus."  He goes on to write that most pineapple lilies harken from South Africa, many in the Natal region.  Wakehurst's specimen of E. vandermerwei was collected from the just north of the Natal in the Mpumalanga province.  Kew's live collections database notes that this plant was on the IUCN Red List as an endangered species in 1997.  Apparently it has made a comeback since then, as it is no longer listed.

This plant's common name is pineapple
lily, because the flower resembles that fruit.
The genus Eucomis refers to how the flower
resembles a beautiful "top knot" hairdo.
Unlike the other Eucomis that flourish in the grassy gullies of the coastal region, E. vandermerwei is an alpine plant.  In the wild, you will find this species in the rocky savannah on a high plateau.  This means that E. vandermerwei can survive winter frosts (USDA hardiness zones 6a - 8b).  However, the problem with cultivating this species in a North American or European garden doesn't stem from cold hardiness. 

When I saw this plant for sale this weekend at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, I decided to ask the vendor from Cornwall's Trecanna Nursery for some cultivation tips.  He told me the main reason why gardeners struggle to grow this plant is because of its water needs.  Although its native habitat does receive a fair amount of rainfall (one source lists about 24 inches or 640 mm annually), most of this occurs in the summer.  "I tell people to keep it in a pot and move it inside in the winter so it can dry out,"the nurseryman advised.

Landscape Value

If you live in an area that is similar to E. vandermerwei's native range, then I think that a clump of this plant would be a real show stopper.  If you're like me, and live in a place that has soggy winters, then it would be best to reserve yourself to one specimen in a container so that it will be easier to accommodate its finicky water needs.  

Although I'm sure it that combining this plant with a limey annual like a sweet potato vine, 'Rita's Gold' Boston fern, or 'Lime Zinger' elephant's ear would really bring out the unique foliage, make sure that you keep an eye on soil moisture.  This should be okay because it receives quite a lot of rainfall in the warm months in its native habitat.

Industry Value
Keep your eyes peeled for
the 'Tiny Piny' series!
The average gardener will have a difficult time finding this species if it isn't carried in their local nursery.  To learn more about the challenges and merits of growing this plant in on the industry side of horticulture, I interviewed Eddie Walsh, prominent Eucomis breeder and owner of New Zealand's Starter Plants Co.  Mr. Walsh has actually been breeding Eucomis for the past twenty years!

Although Walsh has used E. vandermerwei to create colorful hybrids, there are some challenges to nurserymen who want to grow the straight species.  "One fault we see with E. vandermerei," he explained, "is the leaves are very long and not desired by potted plant growers as they are difficult to pack and take up more bench space."  However, many of the new Eucomis hybrids that Walsh and his colleague Ian Duncalf have developed have actually been bred, in part, to address this problem.  There are some really worthwhile "minis" that have the interesting characteristics of E. vandermerwei, but are more compact for growers.

Floral display at the Hampton Court Flower Show.
One challenge to Eucomis breeders is trying to
pinpoint features that will be desirable
to consumers 9 years in the future.
Another problem is that all Eucomis species are native to the southern hemisphere.  For those who many not know, when it is summer in the northern hemisphere, it is winter in the south and vice-versa.  This means that if live plants are shipped to North America or Europe, they will struggle to adapt to our seasons.  Walsh and Duncalf handled this challenge in a really interesting way -- he sends his bulbs to India to propagate into mini-bulbs.  These new bulbs are then sent to a grower in the state of Washington who prepares them for the U.S. Market.

According to Walsh, the biggest problem with breeding pineapple lilies is that, like with many bulbs, the amount of time required. "It takes about 9 years from making a cross to having a variety ready in quantity for the market," he explained. "Who knows what colors they will want that far ahead?"

To the home gardeners reading this, keep your eyes peeled for some really adorable new "tiny piny" pineapple lilies.  Walsh informed me that the UT Gardens in Jackson are currently trialing this series, so stay tuned to their annual trials website to see how they perform in that region.  Be sure to talk to your local retail garden center or plant nursery if they don't already have these plants in stock.

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please feel welcome to leave a comment or send me an email.

To see more photos from this week, be sure to check out the album "If you like pineapple lilies..." on the Plante on Plants Facebook page.  "Likes", shares and comments are appreciated.

Trecanna Nursery's eye catching display of Eucomis and Crocosmia at the 2014 RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show.  Both of these genera are native to South Africa.

All photos and videos were taken by Amanda Plante at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew unless otherwise stated in the caption.


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