Although I instantly recognised this giant amongst plants, it was only from seeing pictures in books and catalogues over the years. But coming across a real one, quite by surprise at Goodnestone Park this weekend, was no anticlimax. An unusual lily, which will take 5-7 years to produce its enormous 10ft high flower spike, Cardiocrinum gigantium is a natural spectacle. The heavily scented white flowers are borne in racemes of up to 20, with deep, maroon-stained throats. The leaves are broad and spade-shaped, unlike other members of the lily family. As with other Goliaths of the plant world, such as Furcraea longaeva and Echium pininana (a favourite even in my tiny garden) the whole plant dies after flowering. Happily, large quantities of offsets and seedlings will appear nearby to keep the group going.
Cardiocrinums are fully hardy and can withstand temperatures down to -15°C; hardly surprising given their native home in the Himalayas, northwestern Burma and southwestern China. When we visit Burma this autumn I am hoping we may see some in the wild – how exciting would that be? Back in the UK they enjoy a cool, sheltered site in deep, moist, humus-rich soil. Sadly they would never cope with our dry, well-drained soil by the coast or our shallow clay in London, but one can always dream!