Completely dormant in the winter, in the very early spring the leaves of the River Crinum emerge, forming a crown of long green straps. And then a green spear emerges rising to almost a metre in height as the buds start forming at the tip, eventually opening into white and pink lily-like flowers.  

And with luck, a second or even third stem may emerge to produce another cluster of trumpet-shaped flowers. As the flowers mature, the long stalk reclines gracefully, eventually coming to rest on the ground. The flowers progress to become round pink fruits.

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The River Crinum (Crinum macowanii ) is a tall and graceful presence in the garden

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Initially emerging in a tight bunch, the buds gradually separate and elongate before opening, each in its own time

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The striped buds, held high at the top of the long stem, are every bit as attractive as the fully opened flowers 

In nature these plants grow from the coast to the mountains in a wide variety of habitats, including in grasslands in the wetlands and in the mountains, near rivers, as well as in woodland areas. It also grows in a variety of soils, including rocky and sandy soils. It occurs in many areas in southern Africa and northwards into East Africa.

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The fact that the buds open successively adds to the showiness of the flowers

There are 22 species of Crinum in southern Africa, growing mostly in the summer rainfall areas. Crinum are part of the Amaryllidaceae family. They have a faint sweet scent that is at its strongest in the evening. It is thought that the flowers are pollinated by moths, although I have seen bees and other insects attracted to the flowers in our garden.

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Small beetles attracted to the pollen

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As the flowers mature, the tips of the petals curl back attractively

Although it is not yet a ‘near threatened’ species, the number of plants in the wild is declining. The bulbs are harvested and collected for the traditional medicines trade. In the preparation of medicine made from crinums, skill is required as the bulbs contain toxic alkaloids. Medicinal uses include making decoctions of the bulb to be taken orally and used to treat tuberculosis, rheumatic fever, and kidney and bladder infections. The boiled bulb is used as a compress and the leaves can be used to make poultices and as bandages.

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It is always cheering to see the River Crinum resurrecting from dormancy after surviving the dry winter and going on to flower in response to the spring rains. In our area it is one of those plants that thrives on benign neglect – my favourite kind of plant, with the added bonus of its exceptionally beautiful flowers.

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Sources: Notte, Alice. 2013.  PlantZAfrica. South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI).;  Pooley, Elsa. 1998. A Field Guide to Wild Flowers of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Region. Durban: Natal Flora Publications Trust;  Van Wyk, Ben-Erik and Gericke, Nigel. 2007. People’s Plants: A Guide to Useful Plants of Southern Africa.  Pretoria: Briza

 Posted by Carol