A Bold Summer Bulb

Eucomis ‘Oakhurst’ summer foliageAs fall approaches each year, I’m determined to cut back on the number of tender bulbs I dig up for indoor storage. Fortunately, I always weaken as the season progresses, and I end up still digging canna rhizomes and dahlia tubers long after they should have been safely tucked away in the basement. But if I ever do decide to stick to my intentions, there’s still one bulb I will always save: ‘Oakhurst’ pineapple lily (Eucomis).

I’ve read reports of other gardeners overwintering these bulbs outdoors in Zone 6, so I left one clump in the garden as an experiment, and all of those bulbs rotted. So, no more risk-taking with these beauties for me! After all, it’s a simple matter to bring them in: I just dig up the entire clump, toss it—soil and all—into a plastic grocery bag, and set it in my unheated basement for the winter. Once a month or so, I toss a bit of water into the bag if the soil looks dry. Then, when I see the bulbs starting to grow again in spring, I dig a new hole in the garden, plunk in the clump, and let it do its thing.
And my goodness, what a thing it does! The pointy new shoots rise into broad, strappy leaves that are the richest purple you can imagine. In full sun, they keep that effect until about the end of July, producing an amazing contrast to pretty much any flowering or foliage companion. About now, in early August, the leaf color ages to more of a purplish or reddish green, and the pineapple-shaped flower clusters emerge to add interest well into fall. I like the flowers but miss the intense foliage color during that time. I’ve noticed, though, that if we get a good spell of cool weather in early fall, the plants produce some new dark leaves—not as deep purple as before bloom, but good enough to produce a striking counterpoint to the older foliage.Eucomis ‘Oakhurst’ in bloomI think the hardest part of growing these amazingly easy bulbs is planning for appropriate companions. In the photos, you can see how the pre-bloom foliage is distinctly upright; then, when the flowers appear, the leaves becoming arching to sprawling, sometimes smothering daintier bedmates around their base. I’ve found that ‘Big Ears’ lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) works well as a sturdy and handsome perennial partner. This year, for something different, I used a bright red annual phlox (Phlox drummondii) to fill in around the base for early color. By the time the pineapple lily foliage needed the space, the phlox was worn out anyway, so pulling out the annual then worked well.

While ‘Oakhurst’ seems to be the most widely available of the dark-leaved cultivars recently, you can still find some sold as ‘Sparkling Burgundy’, and in my experience, they look and perform the same. By any name, they’re definitely worth a try!

About Nancy J. Ondra

Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.

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