For years, I’ve been drooling over descriptions of this flower: it’s a bulb, it’s fragrant, it blooms in the middle of hot summer: what more could I want?
I did try it once. Reading somewhere that it was drought-tolerant, I got three bulbs and planted them in one of my containers. Results: nothing.
I still wanted to try again.
Yet somehow, year after year, I kept cutting it off my list. Next year, I’d say to myself. Next year I’ll have it. And year after year, I kept reading and seeing pictures of all the beautiful species as well as the hybrid cultivated forms (Scott Ogdens’s book, Garden Bulbs for the South, was the catalyst for many of my fantasies).
Last fall I finally ordered them again. Bowing to my climate and budget, I picked one of the best-known, easiest-grown, and easiest-to-find cultivars. Hymenocallis festalis is hardy to zone 8, where I live. The graceful, elegant, desirable species I saw were from Mexico, and hardy only to zone 9 or 10. I’d been down that road before. I chose the road most traveled by: I ordered a plant I knew would survive in my climate.
As usual, I had to work at finding places to stash all my fall-planted bulbs, and I’d forgotten not only where I’d put them, but that I had them. So when these strange fat light-green amaryllis-like stems started emerging from the large container with the Goodwin Creek lavender and Berggarten sage, I didn’t know what they were.
Until the day one opened. For a minute, when I saw it, I thought: what’s that white trumpet lily doing on such a short stalk? My hymenocallis is shorter on its stalk than the picture, only about eight inches tall; that’s usually caused by late planting. Since I didn’t keep records of when I planted last year (bad, I know), I’m not sure if planting late was the cause this time.
I happened to pick up Two Gardens, letters of Elizabeth Lawrence and K.S. White, while I was mulling this over. In one of the letters, Elizabeth Lawrence points out that hot-freeze-hot can create short bulb stems. We certainly had that this spring – and summer.
I’m also wondering if they came up this time because of a mistake I made. I got distracted watering one day, and I left the hose on that big container with the lavender and sage (and Hymenocallis).
Some hymenocallis like a boggy situation (I saw some in a greenhouse that were growing in water);
others prefer light watering and good drainage. Hymenocallis festalis is the light-water type according to most of my sources (including Select Seeds, where I bought them). But it’s interesting that I got the hymenocallis sprouts right after I gave that pot a good soaking.
Gaygardener says that H. festalis multiplies better if it’s kept moist all the time. I might test that out at some point, but our water table is low from drought, and I’m not going to make my lavender/sage pot into a bog anytime soon
In any case, in the obliging way of bulbs, it’s opened. The fragrance is of the orangeblossom/gardenia/ tribe, but somehow diluted and softened in a very pleasing way.
Hymenocallis X festalis is a cross of the Mexican H. narcissiflora with H. longipetala. (Maybe those are some species hymenocallis I could grow, if I could locate them. Or maybe not.) Hymenocallis is in the Amaryllis family, which is why its emerging stems reminded me so much of amaryllis. Daffodils are in the same family, as you can tell by hymenocallis’s looks, and one of its common names.
As for the Latin name, “Hymenocallis” means “beautiful membrane”, and refers to the flower’s corona. The “festalis” part of the name means, as you might have guessed, festival or holiday. So it’s a beautiful festive membrane. (I do think the curling-back petals of hymenocallis look like some party decoration.)
Someday, maybe I’ll find a way to grow some of the species hymenocallis. Meanwhile, I’m happy to finally celebrate my little Hymenocallis festival.