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What is Pancratium?

By Deborah Walker
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Pancratium is a genus of approximately 20 species of perennial flowering bulbs in the Amaryllidaceae, or amaryllis, family. It is native to the warm climates of the Mediterranean coast, the Canary Islands, and the tropical areas of Asia and Africa. Pancratium maritimum, or sea lily, and Pancratium illyricum are the most hardy species for outdoor growing. Some species of this plant have medicinal uses. They may be propagated by offsets, or spontaneous clones of the mother plant, and by seed.

The different species of these plants grow in regions with widely different characteristics. Some, such as the Pancratium maritmum grow in sandy soil along the coast, and others live in the desert. It is for this reason that some species produce the fragrant white flowers common to all at but different times of the year and under different conditions. Some bloom in the spring, others in late summer, during the fall, or after a rainstorm. Their flowers are short-lived, lasting two or three days. Foliage ranges from silvery-gray to blue-green. Height may range between 6-18 inches (15-45 centimeters).

They grow best in U.S. Department of Agriculture Hardiness Zones 8-11. This means that the plants are able to tolerate cold temperatures down to 10° Fahrenheit (-12.2° Celsius). Plants in this genus grow best in full sun and in soil that is mildly acidic to mildly alkaline, or with a pH of 6.1-7.8. They have average water needs, but should not be overwatered. Some species will go into a rest period if water is withheld.

The sea lily may be found growing in deep sand dunes along the coast. This species is protected in France because of the destruction stemming from urbanization along the coastline. The Pancratium illyricum may be found on Corsica, Sardinia, and Capri growing at on rocky slopes up to 4265 feet (1300 meters) above sea level.

The P. tenuifolium or P. trianthum species have been used in traditional coming-of-age ceremonies in Botswana. The plants have psychoactive properties and induced altered states of consciousness. Other species were used as cardiac treatments. P. maritimum may be applied externally as an antifungal. Plants in this genus are toxic and should not be consumed.

Propagation of Pancratium may be accomplished by dividing the offsets or bulbs, although using the offsets is often more successful. Offsets may be rooted in a mixture of peat, sand, and leaf mold. Seed pods should be allowed to dry on the plant. Once dried, the pods may be broken open and the seeds collected. Pancratium seeds do not store well; sowing them soon after collection is advisable.

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