Pancratium TOW

Pascal Vigneron
Mon, 22 Mar 2004 07:38:08 PST
Note from Mary Sue:
This week's topic of the week is Pancratium. Pascal Vigneron has provided 
us with a very interesting introduction. I hope we will hear from the 
people who grow any of the species of this genus about their experiences.


Flowers of Pancratium are very nice, with a characteristic corona and six
elegant white segments, like those of Hymenocallis.
They were already known during antiquity and were painted on the Cretan
frescos. Today they are figured on more than 14 postal stamps but are
very seldom seen in the garden. Very few species are hardy. Most are
tropical plants.

History of the genus and systematic:

When Linne established the genus Pancratium in 1753, he included various
plants with a staminal corona (filaments connate into a cup): zeylanicum,
mexicanum, caribaeum, maritimum, carolinianum, illyricum and amboinense.
Some others were added later. Now, these species have long since been
divided between some new genera: Hymenocallis, Proiphys...
Genus Pancratium is strictly from Old World in distribution (Asia, Africa,
and Europe). But there are some old names that are still in use with the
general public, such as Pancratium littorale.

According to the new systematic, Pancratium is related to the other
European / Mediterranean amaryllid genera (Narcissus, Galanthus.).
These genera constitute a monophyletic clade of the Amaryllis family.
The precise phylogeny of this European clade is not well known yet.
Vagaria is a related genus often merged in Pancratium. (I don't merge it
but perhaps I am wrong.)

The species:

There are nearly 18 species, but I don't know precisely how many.
I have not yet found a good article about the nomenclature of the genus.

They come from various regions, climates and type of vegetation: from
sea shore [Sea Lily] to arid land [Desert Lily]). So, they bloom at diverse
seasons: spring (illyricum), late summer (maritimum), autumn
(sickenbergeri) or after rain (zeylanicum, tenuifolium). Flowers are often
ephemeral and last only 2-3 days. The black seed are dispersed by sea
(maritimum), floodwaters or wind (sickenbergeri). I am not sure, but
perhaps by animal too. Most species have a rest period, but some are
nearly evergreen.

P. maritimum: Sea lily.
It grows deeply buried in the sand dunes along the Mediterranean and
Atlantic coast, as far north as Brittany in France (USDA zone 9). Flowering
time: August (July to September: later in the south). Perfumed flowers have
a long floral tube and are pollinated by hawk-moths. Leaves grow during
winter. They are frosted easily. It is a opportunistic species, so it
remain evergreen in cultivation if water is available. It doesn't need a
sandy soil but need the full sun. It grows better in the coastal region
than inland where it doesn't flower. Some said it needs salt to bloom. This
species became rare because of destruction of the coast by urbanism and it
is now a protected species in France and some others countries.

P. illyricum
Comes from Corsica, Sardinia and Capri. It grows "inland" on rocky slopes
and sparse woodland areas, from sea level to more than 1300m above sea
level. Leaves grow at the end of winter. Flowering time: May (April-June).
Perfumed flowers. The large leaves (30-60 cm x 1.5-5.5 cm)
disappear after flowering, in early summer, and the plants goes dormant.
It is the hardiest Pancratium: USDA zone 8 and probably 7 in sheltered
position with a southern aspect. Full sun, but in the South light shade.

The name illyricum mean "from illyria", a region in Yugoslavia. This is a
wrong origin! It would be better to name it Tyrrhenian Pancratium because
of the Tyrrhenian Sea, between Corsica, Sardinia and continental Italia.
But I prefer the Italian name "giglio stella", i.e. Star Lily, that is a
good description of the flowers. A species that's worth a try!

P. canariense
A species endemic to the Canaries were it grows on slopes and cliffs.
It flowers in late summer and early autumn. The leaves grow in autumn and
turn yellow in spring. It needs a dry summer. Its needs resemble Amaryllis
belladonna, so probably it will grow well in the same place. But it is not
as hardy.

P. zeylanicum
This small tropical species comes from Asia: India and the Islands of the
Indian Ocean. Its name means "from Ceylon" (Sri Lanka). At Mayotte
it is sometimes called "fleur de la pluie", i.e. Rain Flower, because it
blooms at the beginning of the rainy season. Rain induces flowering and
development of the glossy foliage. The flowers are particularly graceful.
It is a tender plant, so, except in tropical climate, it must be grow in
pots indoors or in warm greenhouse during autumn-winter-spring and put
outside during summer. The small bulbs may be planted in 10-15 cm (4-6
inch) pots, with a good drainage. The plant has a rest period only if water
is withhold.

Origins of the species:

- Mediterranean species :
P. maritimum (Mediterranean Sea, Dead Sea, Atlantic coast),
P. angustifolium (Sicily), P. illyricum (Corsica, Sardinia, Elbe Island,
Capri), P. sickenbergeri (Egypt, Israel...), P. arabicum (Egypt...),
P. tortuosum (Egypt...), P. foetidum (North Africa) var. tunetanum
(Tunisia), P. canariensis (Canary Islands) and genus Vagaria
(Middle-East, North Africa).

I believe that P. angustifolium and P. foetidum are very similar to
P. maritimum.

Vagaria (4 small species) have large filaments but not connate into a cup.

- African species (Austral and tropical Africa):
P. hirtum (Cameroon, Nigeria...), P. tenuifolium (South-Africa, Namibia,
Botswana ; Cameroon, Ghana under the name P. trianthum).

Pancratium tenuifolium: in arid bushveld in South Africa (Northern
Province) it flowers after the first summer rains (~ November). Twisted
bright green leaves. Strange black and white seeds. (Are they dispersed
by animals?).

- Southern Asiatic species:
P. maximum (Yemen), P. landesii (Oman), P. parvum (India...), P. triflorum
(India), P. verecundum (India), P. zeylanicum (India, Sri Lanka, Mayotte,
the Seychelles, Java ...), P. biflorum (India, Hong Kong).

Some other aspects:

P. sickenbergeri, the Desert Lily, is similar to a small P. maritimum with
curly leaves. It grows in arid land such the Negev Desert. Here, the
species is grazed by the dorcas gazelles at high levels. During winter,
gazelles eat the leaf tips. During the summer, gazelles dig up and consume
the bulbs. During autumn they eat the flowers. "The greatest impact the
gazelles have on P. sickenbergeri populations in sand dunes is the
consumption of flowers [...] inflorescences in this environment have less
than a 0.0001 probability of surviving to seed-production." "Herbivory is a
potentially strong selective force for the evolution of plant defence," so
this species is the material of some scientific studies Re defence and
tolerance strategies of the plants.
(See: D. Ward, D.G. Saltz & all.)*

Another species that is eaten by animals:
<Quote: K. King, Bulb-Robin, Oct. 2002 - re "Handbook of the Yemen flora" >
"Pancratium maximum Forssk is widespread. The Arabic name means "baboon
onion", which is appropriate because the bulbs are one of the main foods of
baboons that frequent the valleys."

In the Balearic Islands (Spain), the lizard, Podarcis lilfordi, forages the
pollen of P. maritimum. (See: PĂ©rez-Mellado & all.) Strange pollinator,
isn't it?

Toxic plants:
Well, we are neither gazelles nor baboons; we must not forget that
Pancratium species are toxic plants! The bulbs contain more than 20
alkaloids and some other substances (lectine...).
There were ethnobotanical and/or medicinal uses with Pancatium:
P. tenuifolium (P. trianthum, Kwashi) was used in Botswana in a coming-of-age
ceremony (psychoactive properties). Others were used as cardiac drugs.
P. maritimum has anti-fungal activity (external use !). Perhaps the alkaloid
Pancratistatin will become a useful antineoplastic agent, but it is
off-topic, as it comes from Pancratium littorale (actually Hymenocallis).

There are pictures of at least 8 Pancratium species on the web. You may see
many English links on my French web-page (+ Bibliography at the bottom of
the page):…
* Re gazelles and lizards, see scientific bibliography here (3+1 links):…

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