Some of the largest and most eye-catching wildflowers in Florida are aquatic, and the American Crinum is in that category, featuring garden-worthy fragrant blossoms a couple inches in diameter, having 6 long white“petals” and a long narrow tube.
Big white long-tubular flowers are pollinated by sphinx moths (also called hawk moths), which are nocturnal and are drawn by scent instead of by bright colors. There are two species of sphinx moths in South Florida and their relative importance with respect to Crinum sex is unclear. They hover when they visit the flower and unroll a long proboscis that matches the narrow floral tube like a key in the lock. The larva of the Tersa Sphinx Moth resembles a snake.
The insect relations of Crinums run deeper than pollination assistance. As is true of many members of the Lily Family, Crinums contain bioactive alkaloids. Alkaloids are familiar as drugs, such as nicotine, caffeine, heroin, morphine, cocaine, and colchicine. Crinum americanum is a one-species chemical factory with at least 11 known alkaloids. It and other Crinums are the subjects of optimistic drug research, and our species may well wind up saving somebody from something someday. Looking back, Crinums have rich histories in traditional and local medical practices around the world. One Lily alkaloid is already useful against gout. Actually American Crinum poison does save somebody from something already: Lubber Grasshoppers from being bird snacks. Eating the drug-laden foliage on wild and garden crinums, Lubber Grasshoppers render themselves toxic, revealing their acquired threat to hungry birds with bright warning coloration.
Crinum americanum is the U.S. representative of the 100-species genus Crinum, which comes mostly from the Old World Tropics. DNA study shows the closest relatives of the American Crinum to be the other Crinums from Tropical America, leaving their relationship with the bulk of the genus in Africa and beyond unclear. How did they cross the sea? And when?
Crinums are prominent and diverse in warm-climate gardens, with numerous species and cultivars having white to reddish and purplish flowers. They are hybridized and highly modified horticulturally, making the exact taxonomy of the garden crinums tangled and puzzling.