William Bartram, a notable, early American botanist, extensively explored the Island of St. Simons in Georgia; describing vividly the landscape, animals and plants in the area, along with his personal encounters with islanders, and in most cases, their generous offers of food, shelter and conversation and hospitality to him in March of the year 1774.
Near present day Fort Frederica, beautifully described by Bartram, as near a “venerable grove of live oaks, under whose spreading boughs opened a spacious avenue leading to the former seat (Headquarters) of General Oglethorpe, but now near the property of Capt. Raimond Demere” (the ancestor of many descendants still living on the Georgia Islands). After leaving this town he went 5 miles to south St. Simons where; “the lively breezes were perfumed by the fragrant breath of the superb Crinum, called by the inhabitants, ‘white lily’…the delicate structure of its spadix (flower), for its broad green leaves and the texture and whiteness of its flowers at once charmed me”.
In William Bartrams book, Travels, he had discovered the Crinum asiaticum that he named “Lilium superbum” and wrote that it represented pride and vanity, a puzzling statement. This population of Crinum has greatly multiplied after two centuries and is cultivated on an extensive scale throughout St. Simons Island and nearby at the Cloister Hotel on Sea Island, the famous tourist, five- star resort, where all Presidents of the United States since Calvin Coolidge and many Kings, Queens and Heads of State have visited and vacationed. Giant clumps of these 6 foot tall lilies can be viewed publicly at the old slave cabins at the edge of St. Simon’s present day airport. The lily, Crinum asiaticum, produces giant clusters of fragrant white flowers on sturdy stems up to six feet tall, and the plant can bloom any month of the year, but most prolifically during late spring and early summer. After blooming the flowers can produce giant green seeds, the size of a quarter that can be planted on top of the soil immediately while green to produce small bulbs that eventually develop into large plants. These lilies are evergreen in zones 8-11, but usually will re-sprout from the bulbs after killing freezes that are often experienced in zone 7.
These Crinum plants develop into small tree- like umbrellas in Hawaii, with trunks up to 8 ft. tall topped by a rosette of 6 inch wide leaves spectacularly perched at the top of the stump. In the U.S. these lilies do not often exceed 6 ft in height, however, the stem of the Crinum asiaticum can be as big around as a large leg. When these stems are cut off and replanted in the soil, they will root easily and quickly will develop to form another bulb at the base with roots about the diameter of fingers that extend out from the bulb, like spokes on a bicycle wheel. A large Crinum will eventually form small offset bulbs that can be removed from the parent bulb for increasing the numbers in a planting. Occasionally, the bulb will divide itself into two, large equal sized plants. The Crinum is very easy to transplant in any kind of soil and hardly ever shows any dramatic or stunting shock after replanting.
Some modern botanists feel that although William Bartram’s original name of ‘Lilium superbum’ is not acceptable to replace with, Crinum asiaticum, that the name, Crinum asiaticum may not be acceptable either, because the habitat and the colonization of this lily was firmly established into mature colonies along the coast of the Eastern U.S. in the month of March during the year, 1774, when Bartram discovered and described it as growing there in a pure and naturalized state. It seems impossible that Crinum asiaticum could have migrated to the Eastern coast of the United States, except by seed, which understandably can float in salt water and germinate later, after it has been washed ashore. This remote possibility of seed floating from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic to the Eastern seaboard does not seem likely, since seed could only migrate through the southern limits of Brazil and Argentina at the bottom of South America - against strong trans-ocean currents and in water so cold that the seed would not survive exposure of the frigid temperatures through the Drake Passage near Cape Horn, Argentina.
There is an early botanical historical description of Crinum americanum, a lily that is reported to be native to the Eastern U.S., however, this Crinum does not fit the William Bartram description of “broad” leaves, since Crinum americanum has very narrow leaves and Crinum asiaticum has very “broad” leaves. Additionally, Bartram observed that the Crinum, ‘Lilium superbum’, produced: the “fragrant breath of the superb Crinum….and whiteness of flowers at once charmed me”. He recorded these Crinum flowers as blooming during the month of March of the year, l774, which could only be the flowers of Crinum asiaticum, since Crinum americium only blooms in late summer and during the fall – and never in the month of March. These facts prove that the description of the lily as described by William Bartram was Crinum asiaticum.