Summer bulbs have a history of coming in and out of fashion. Cannas, elephant ears, and caladiums have alternatively been given places of honor in the finest gardens and then banished from even the humblest. Eucomis, while not being as well known as the canna, has in some ways ridden this up and down coaster. Luckily we are in a golden age for pineapple lilies and there is little chance that they will fade from the spotlight anytime soon.
The genus Eucomis is comprised of about 11 species of rosette-forming bulbous plants from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, and Malawi. The various species typically grow in grasslands, forest edges, and even in damp conditions along riverbanks. The species are very similar to each other, differing superficially mainly in size and coloration. Strappy somewhat succulent foliage is topped by a spike of tightly packed waxy flowers which in turn are crowned by leafy bracts. The flowers and comose (tuft-like) bracts together resemble a pineapple fruit giving rise to the common name.
The landscape worthy species grow mainly in rocky grasslands where there is excellent drainage and little moisture during the winter dormant period. Following these guidelines will lead to success in the garden. Plant the bulbs in a well-drained somewhat organic soil in full sun to light shade. Most of the species will appreciate protection from excess winter rain. The flowers are typically fragrant and make great cut specimens lasting for weeks in arrangements.
The JC Raulston Arboretum has been enjoying these bulbs for many years with most of the Eucomis collection near the Bobby G. Wilder Visitor Center and in the Geophyte Border with others scattered throughout the arboretum. Some of the showiest members of the collection are E. comosa cultivars and hybrids many of which come from the cut-flower breeding program of New Zealander Eddie Walsh. This species and its hybrids tend to grow 20" to 30" tall with green to burgundy leaves and flowers ranging from creamy white to pink.
Along with E. comosa, the JCRA has eight other species and subspecies of Eucomis. Among our favorites of the species is the relative giant of the group, E. pole-evansii growing to near 6' when in flower. The tall spikes of pale green flowers tower over the long strappy green foliage. It works great as a single specimen or is masses for high impact. On the other end of the spectrum is the cutely diminutive E. vandermerwei. This little rock garden gem only grows to 8" tall with densely packed rose flowers and marvelously spotted foliage.
Look for new hybrids from NC State University to show up down the road at the Arboretum as the former Department of Horticultural Science head, Julia Kornegay, Ph.D., is establishing a Eucomis breeding program for the floriculture industry.