By Bruce Crawford – Manager of Horticulture, Morris County Parks Commission.
Common names are often very misleading. For gardeners, having a plant named in a known language is far more comfortable than trying to pronounce, no less understand a name that is in Greek or Latin. Yet, these common names can get one into trouble! For example, the plant commonly and rather intriguingly known as Pineapple Lily produces neither a Pineapple nor is it even in the Lily Family! However, it is certainly easier to pronounce than its botanical name of Eucomis comosa and even with its intriguing common name, it is rarely seen in NJ Gardens.
Pineapple Lily is native to regions of Southern Africa and is actually a member of the Asparagaceae or Asparagus family. The genus consists of 12 species, all native to moist meadows and grassy areas found along or near streams. The genus name of Eucomis was crafted in 1788 by the French botanist and magistrate Charles Louis L’Hertier De Brutelle (1746-1800). The name comes from the Greek Eu meaning good and Kome meaning hair; the good head of hair is a reference to the tuft of foliage that is perched atop some of the flower stalks, as pictured above on a floral bud of Eucomis ‘Glow Sticks’. The species epithet of comosa is from the Latin meaning abundant hair or foliage and is once again a reference to the tuft or coma of foliage atop the flower.
Pineapple Lilies develop from true bulbs, which are layers of modified leaves, much as you see in an onion bulb when it is sliced in half. Eucomis are zone 7 hardy and will typically endure a southern NJ winter when planted in the ground, but not northern NJ. Unwittingly, I planted some in a protected and shady location many years back and they dependably returned for many years. My mistake was planting them in the shade! The plants need full sun in order for the foliage to resist flopping and for the flowers to develop. In mid to late July a central flower spike stretches upwards to 24″ tall, with greenish white, star-shaped flowers clustered around the upper 6-12″ of the stem. Flowers of Eucomis bicolor are pictured below.
Species with green foliage are certainly attractive, but the deep burgundy foliaged form called ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ has the bonus of purple foliage (pictured below). An introduction from Plant Delights Nursery, the foliage is initially a very dark burgundy transitioning to a purplish green as it nears flowering. Typical for the genus, this selection prefers full sun in moisture retentive soils. The plants are vigorous, readily reaching 18-24″ tall and slightly wider.
Typical of plants from South Africa, they prefer moister summers and drier winters, which is unfortunately the opposite of NJ weather during most seasons. Consequently, if they are to be grown outside as perennials in southern and central NJ, they require soils that are well-drained and enriched with organic matter. Plant the bulbs 5-6″ deep and if you garden in central NJ, add additional mulch in autumn to insulate the bulb from periods of deep cold. For those gardening in northern NJ, consider growing them in containers. Plant the tops of the bulbs 1-2″ below the soil in spring or early summer in a 10-12″ pot. Following a heavy frost bring the pots indoors, storing them in a cool dark room or garage that remains between 40-55°F. The frosted foliage should be removed and the soil allowed to dry and remain dry throughout the winter. Start to water the pots again in late March and bring outdoors when nighttime temperatures remain near or above freezing. It is important to place the bulbs in an ample sized container to allow the roots adequate room to spread. The larger container also prevents dramatic fluctuations in soil moisture during the growing season and appears to enhance bulb health while overwintering.
Pineapple Lily may not provide much culinary appeal, but it does add a generous and delicious serving of visual appeal to the Garden. Unbeknownst by many, this delectable plant needs to catch the fancy of many more gardeners! Has it yet to catch yours?