HomeHome & GardenPineapple lilies used to be too tender to survive outside

Pineapple lilies used to be too tender to survive outside

When I first set out as a gardener, no one I knew grew pineapple lilies in their gardens. The only places you were ever likely to find these summer flowering plants, with their exceptionally exotic blooms, was in houseplants books. 

Even the experts of the time thought that these head-turners from overseas were way too tender to survive outdoors in Britain. 

For example, my dog-eared copy of Dr D.G. Hessayon’s The House Plant Expert mentions pineapple lilies in a section on growing indoor bulbs, while The RHS Encyclopedia Of Houseplants from the early 1990s gives them their own entry in an A-Z listing, saying pineapple lilies ‘make good pot plants for the cool conservatory’. 

Well, times have moved on. Many of these flamboyant bulbous perennials are now known to be much tougher than cautious pundits once believed. In fact, some of the most popular and readily available types can endure a cold snap down to -10C or more. 

Even those that aren’t as hardy can be grown outside, as long as you give them some protection over winter. In order to enjoy a showstopping display in a few months’ time, snap up some pineapple lily bulbs as soon as possible. Pop them into the ground or containers, and they’ll soon start to grow. 

Even the experts of the time thought that these head-turners from overseas were way too tender to survive outdoors in Britain

A large clump of fleshy leaves will develop over spring and summer, followed by dramatic spikes of flower that will enhance your garden from late summer into September.

Native to South Africa and tropical parts of southern Africa, pineapple lilies have distinctive blooms. They create stout stems that carry big, fat flowerheads comprised of lots of tiny, star-shaped flowers. 


1) SPARKLING ROSY A neat rosette of purpleflushed leaves make a fine backdrop to 21in stalks studded with burgundy buds that open into pink flowers. 

2) CORNWOOD Bred in a Devon garden, this forms a clump of arching leaves, pictured above, set beneath 27in stems bearing flowerheads of white blooms with purple centres. 

3) PINK GIN A real head-turner, pictured left, that produces a clump of strappy green leaves and 4ft-high flower stalks clothed with red buds, opening into deep pink flowers.

4) PLAYA BLANCA A super large ‘top knot’ of foliage crowns the white flowerheads of this variety, which rise 2ft above an upright cluster of leaves.

5) OCTOPUS A compact form with 8in stalks of purple flowers and flat rosettes of leaves that are attractively speckled and crimped at the edges. 

Pineapple lilies used to be too tender to survive outside

Perched above is a top knot of smaller leaves, known botanically as bracts, that look similar to the spiky leaves found on top of a pineapple, hence its common name. The distinctive tuft of bracts clearly captured the imagination of French botanist Charles Louis L’Heritier de Brutelle, who gave the lilies their scientific moniker of eucomis in the late 18th Century. 

The name means ‘lovely-haired’ and derives from the Greek words eu, meaning pleasing, and kome, which translates as head of hair. I also fell for pineapple lilies in a big way during the early 2000s, Martyn Cox IN THE GARDEN when I spotted a few in their full glory on a bulb company’s display at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. I’ve since built up a small collection, in containers and in the ground. 

Among my original haul was Eucomis bicolor, a species that can be found growing wild in South Africa, Lesotho and Eswatini. Producing a cluster of wavy-edged leaves and fat heads of jade-green flowers on 19in stems, it was introduced to British gardeners in 1878. 

Now there are close to 60 different varieties available to gardeners in the UK. Flowerheads vary from long and narrow, to more conical in shape, and are carried on stems that range in height from 6in to 6½ft. Flowers come in shades of white, green and pink, while leaves can be green, purple or bronze tinted – some are peppered with dark spots or have wavy margins. 

Pineapple lilies like moistureretentive, well-drained soil, and due to their origins they do best in a sunny spot – if set in shade they will produce a mass of lush leaves at the expense of flowers. Most are ideal at the front of beds and borders. Place tall ones towards the back of schemes, while short ones look great in rock gardens. 

As for planting bulbs, set them in 7in deep holes, spacing individual ones about 10in apart. If you don’t have the right soil conditions or a sunny position, raise compact forms of pineapple lily in containers filled with gritty, loam-based John Innes No.2 compost. 

A single bulb is fine in a 8in wide pot, but for more impact try planting three in a 12in wide container. Looking after pineapple lilies is easy. Keep plants well-watered and encourage blooms by feeding every couple of weeks in summer with a high potash fertiliser. Prevent taller varieties from toppling over in wind by supporting with bamboo canes secured with soft twine. 

Native to South Africa and tropical parts of southern Africa, pineapple lilies have distinctive blooms

Native to South Africa and tropical parts of southern Africa, pineapple lilies have distinctive blooms

In late autumn, pull up dying foliage and flower spikes. If you live in a mild place, protect bulbs over winter with a 3in mulch of garden compost or bark chippings. Those in colder parts should lift bulbs, place in trays of dry compost and store in a shed, greenhouse or porch. 

Move plants in pots to a similar frost-free place, avoiding watering until new shoots appear in late winter.


Q I have some old potted arum lilies that have sentimental value as they once belonged to my grandparents. They were badly damaged by frost and have died back to ground level. Is there anything I can do to save them? Margherita Jeffreys 

A Remove the rhizomes (underground, bulb-like structures) from the pot and replant individually into small pots. Once they are growing and well-rooted, set several small plants into a larger pot. Use welldrained, loam-based compost, such as John Innes No.2. 

Q What is the best way to plant begonia tubers? Jane Daniels 

A Tubers measuring 2in or more across can be planted directly into 4-5in containers filled with multi-purpose compost. Make sure the curved side of the tuber is facing down and hollow side pointing up. Twist gently into the compost until the top is just beneath the surface, and cover with a thin layer of compost. Start smaller tubers off in smaller pots or in a seed tray. 

Q The foliage on my standard Photinia ‘Red Robin’ trees has been badly affected by dark spots on the leaves. Is it possible to rectify the problem? Jane Surridge 

A It sounds like photinia leaf spot, a fungal disease. First, rake up leaves on the ground, as they may carry spores. In spring, spray new leaves with fungicide – Provanto Fungus Fighter Plus and Fungus Clear Ultra are both ideal. Repeat 21 days later. 

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