I LIVE SMACK-DAB IN THE MIDDLE of one of the world’s finest arboretums—peninsular Charleston. This plantsman’s paradise has no official name, no admission fees and, under normal circumstances, is always accessible. It extends from Hampton Park down to Cannon Park, past Colonial Lake and into Waterfront Park. Those who elect to explore on foot receive a few extra bonuses. The College of Charleston and MUSC’s inner campuses are well maintained and display interesting and diverse plant life. Plus, ambling Charleston’s historic streets also affords glimpses into hundreds of private front yard gardens along the way.
Colonial Lake, which is actually a tidal pond, is by far my favorite place to wander because the surrounding gardens are botanically varied and infinitely explorable. The landscaping also softens the lake’s concrete parameters.
This public park reminds me of a university trial garden because it offers gardeners the chance to learn about plants that survive Charleston’s sultry summers and unexpected events like rain bombs and surprise flooding. By paying attention to what grows at Colonial Lake, serious gardeners can make better decisions about their own landscapes and perhaps find inspiration for new gardening ideas. But, best of all, this is a place to discover new plants.
This is how I learned about a member of the asparagus family named pineapple lily (Eucomis spp.) this past summer. A small grove of one particular species thrives on Colonial Lake’s eastern side, off Rutledge Avenue and across from Trumbo Street. This stunning cultivar is appropriately named Sparkling Burgundy (E. comosa ‘Sparkling Burgundy’). The flower stems, which are as thick as an index finger, are indeed wine-red burgundy. When the star-shaped flower clusters reach full maturity, the petals display graduated hues of maroon. At the top of each flower spike sits a tuft of greenish bracts that resemble a pineapple crown, which explains Eucomis’ common name. When covered with morning dew, every Sparkling Burgundy flower literally twinkles in the sunlight.
The hyacinth-shaped flower spikes begin to bloom around mid-June—always from the bottom up—and start out white. As the petals age, they begin to display hues of pink and, by the end of July, the flowers—although still looking as fresh as the day they first began to bloom—turn to shades of green.
The appellation “pineapple lily” consists of about 10 species, all of which grow from bulbs or seed. (The former produces full-grown plants much quicker.) Most Eucomis are native to South Africa, so it’s easy to understand why they stand up to the Lowcountry’s sultry summer weather. The science-based literature I’ve read about this genus says that pineapple lily is noted for its resistance against pests and diseases. I waited all summer for something to chew on or disfigure this collection of plants but never found a smidgen of trouble.
From a design aspect, pineapple lily is invaluable in a landscape because it holds its own in any kind of setting. Not necessarily because of its stunning flowers, but because of its leaf height and lush growth habit. The strapped bright green rosette leaves display suggestions of burgundy and spread up to 3 feet wide and often just as tall. Its overall size fills in openings and creates a smooth visual transition from taller trees and shrubs to lower growing vegetation.
Colonial Lake’s Sparkling Burgundy is planted in a natural informal setting, just shy of what gardeners often call “controlled chaos.” Surrounded by rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea) plus a smattering of Summer Nocturne Crinum Lily, its 2-foot flower spikes and bold leaves make a stunning focal point. It also complements taller woody ornamentals, such as American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana).
However, don’t dismiss pineapple lily as a candidate for a formal setting. Because of its overall size, this perennial makes a bold statement when “trapped” inside symmetry. Consider surrounding it with boxwood or plant it behind bluestone paving. Not enough room for a garden? Allow a single specimen to spill out from a decorative container.
Plant Eucomis bulbs in spring for summer bloom. Find them at local garden centers or in catalogs after the holidays. Pineapple lily needs full sun or partial shade. The Sparkling Burgundy at Colonial Lake receives lots of morning sun, but is mostly protected during hot afternoons. Pineapple lily thrives in well-drained soil with an average moisture content, although it will withstand short periods of dryness. *
PJ Gartin is a freelance garden writer who lives in Charleston.