Large shrubs or medium-sized trees, 20–30 m tall. Leaves evergreen, somewhat leathery, opposite, alternate or occasionally whorled, with simple margins of forwardly pointing teeth. Flowers urn- or bell-shaped, solitary or in twos or threes, borne on long axillary peduncles. Petals 5, white to crimson, somewhat fleshy, usually with 3 apical teeth, stamens 15–20. Fruit a woody capsule, pilose to glabrous. (Bean 1981; Coode 1987; Bricker 1991; Gardner 2011).
Crinodendron is a genus of evergreen shrubs or small trees confined to South America, united in having large pendant flowers with toothed petals and opposite evergreen leaves. The name is derived from the Greek ‘krinon’ meaning lily and ‘dendron’, tree, in reference to its somewhat lily-like flowers (Gardner, Hechenleitner & Hepp 2015). In the cool temperate zone at least, it is probably the best known member of its family, Elaeocarpaceae. Although genera including Aristotelia, Vallea and Elaeocarpus might be recognised as close relatives of Crinodendron, it is placed in the Tricuspidarieae tribe of Elaeocarpaceae alongside Dubouzetia and Peripentadenia (Coode 1987), both from wet tropical regions of Australasia (Royal Botanic Gardens Kew 2022).
In its most recent treatment, the genus comprises four species with a native range taking in parts of Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina and Chile (Bricker 1991). In our study area of the northern temperate regions only the two Chilean species are cultivated; C. hookerianum and C. patagua. Interestingly, these two species reflect the clear dichotomy in pollination syndromes that exists in Crinodendron, reflected in their different flower morphologies: showy red urn-shaped ‘lanterns’ with thick fleshy petals, pollinated by hummingbirds in C. hookerianum; and white, bell-shaped, sweetly scented flowers with thinner petals, pollinated by insects in C. patagua (Bricker 1992; Phillips & Rix 2002). Crinodendron tucumanum Lillo is another white-flowered insect-pollinated species (Bricker 1992). Similar in appearance to C. patagua it may have potential for cultivation in our area given a promising provenance and exacting conditions; it has a narrow distribution at high altitude along the eastern flank of the Andean cordillera from near Tucumán, northeast Argentina, to southeast Bolivia (Bricker 1991; Hogan 2008). Young plants raised from wild-collected seed await planting out in Oregon to test their suitability (S. Hogan pers. comm. 2022). The fourth species, Crinodendron brasiliense Reitz & L.B.Sm. is confined to Santa Catarina province in southern Brazil (Bricker 1991).
Interestingly, several resources on ‘gardening for wildlife’ in the UK suggest Crinodendron should be avoided in ‘wildlife friendly’ gardens as its floral morphology makes the flowers inaccessible to most indignenous insects (Wildlife Gardening Forum 2022). However, this statement holds true only for the hummingbird-pollinated C. hookerianum, not the insect-pollinated C. patagua, and many observant gardeners will know that native insects, especially Hymenoptera, will drill into the base of certain non-native flowers to access nectar; this has been observed to occur in C. hookerianum and other South American hummingbird-pollinated genera including Desfontainia (T. Christian pers. obs.).
Unsurprisingly, considering their native range, the Chilean species thrive in areas with cooler, wetter summers and mild winters, which explains the fine examples to be found in gardens on the Atlantic coasts of Europe, particularly in southwest England, western Scotland, and across the island of Ireland (Tree Register 2022). The Pacific seaboard of North America, from middle California north to British Columbia, also supports excellent examples. In cooler coastal regions they will tolerate full sun more than in hotter climates, where shade at the roots is advisable (Hogan 2008). The shelter of a wall or neighbourly evergreens is also beneficial, providing protection against drying winds that can lead to defoliation. Crinodendron are ultimately plants for milder gardens; not suitable for cold or exposed locations, they succeed in a warm, sheltered position where they are less likely to be to be killed back by low winter temperatures or defoliated by cold winds (Arnold-Forster 1948; Bean 1981), but their beauty means horticulturists continue to test them well beyond their comfort zone in the hope of achieving success. Their general requirements make Crinodendron good subjects for planting in woodland gardens, where they can be expected to make extremely attractive flowering trees given suitable conditions.
Both species are reportedly easy to propagate from seed, with or without cold stratification, but there is evidence to suggest C. patagua is self-incompatible, and seed set will always be greatest when several plants are grown together (Humana & Valdivia 2004). They also strike readily from semi-ripe cuttings taken from current season’s growth in late summer, rooted under mist with gentle bottom heat (Burncoose Nurseries 2022).