Dear Readers, whenever I see an amaryllis I always think of my Dad. His Christmas presents always contain at least one rectangular box containing an enormous amaryllis bulb and a pot, and sometimes I get one too. Then our phone conversations for the next month or so are mildly competitive.
‘Mine is about three feet high!’
‘Mine is so big that it keeps falling over!’
‘Mine has flowers the size of a baby’s head!’
‘MIne’s got flowers the size of a cabbage’.
Dad and I love to cross swords. If we are watching ‘Pointless’, the room echoes to a chorus of answers to Alexander Armstrong’s questions. For a while I was winning, but then, after Dad got his cataracts done, we realised that it was only because he couldn’t actually see what the questions were. Hah! These days we are neck and neck. Or maybe Dad’s slightly in front.
Anyhow, the amaryllis is a most bold and ostentatious plant. In my opinion there is no more spectacular indoor bulb. You can practically watch it growing. For a while it’s rather embarrassing to anyone with Victorian sensibilities, as it looks like a giant Martian willy. I almost feel that i should be covering it up with a lace curtain. And then the blooms form and start to open, and it seems impossible that there should be so much volume of petal in that little crumpled bud, but there it is. This year, my amaryllis is dark red, with petals that are simultaneously as sleek as satin and as plush as velvet. It is utterly glorious.
It’s important to clear up exactly what this plant is, however. The bulbs that we grow at home are not actually amaryllis (this name refers to some South African plants) but are from a separate genus known as Hippeastrum, which hales from Central and South America and the Caribbean. The name was given to the plant by William Herbert, a 19th century botanist and illustrator, and means ‘horse star lily’, for reasons which have faded into obscurity. There are 90 separate species of Hippeastrum and over 600 hybrids and cultivars, with new varieties being offered every Christmas – over the past few years Dad and I have competed with pale-green, stripey red and scarlet varieties. The original Hippeastrum species are normally red, pink or purple in colour.
The leaves on a Hippeastrum appear after the flowers, which is one reason why the developing buds look so extraordinary. The sexual organs of the plant, the stamens and pistil, are long and elegant. The pollen is plentiful but is poisonous to cats, so be careful if you have any moggie companions. As with lilies, the danger is that the pollen comes into contact with the fur and is licked off by the cat during grooming. The bulbs of some Caribbean species of Hippeastrum are used to produce arrow poison, so this is obviously not a plant to be messed with.
I have never yet managed to persuade my Hippeastrum to bloom for more than one year, but then I have been doing it All Wrong. The leaves should be allowed to develop, and the plant given some food on a weekly basis during this time, but then it will need two months ‘rest’ in the cold and dark, without food or water (and preferably with no nibbling by any rodents that may be living in the shed). Then the plant can be brought out into the light and watering re-commenced. The plant should be in a small pot, not much bigger than the circumference of the bulb, with a good third of the bulb above the surface of the compost. This can make the plant very top heavy, of course, hence the occasional catastrophe when the whole lot falls over and the main stem breaks under its own weight. I can only imagine that the Hippeastrum that grow wild are rather less exaggerated in form, much as a fox stands more chance of survival in the wild than a pug would.
Incidentally, a properly cared-for Hippeastrum can live for 75 years so I really have no excuse.
One thing that I don’t associate with Hippeastrum is perfume, but apparently there are some scented varieties. The gene for scent is recessive, and is associated only with white or pastel coloured plants – I’ve never grown a perfumed one, but do let me know if you have, I am curious as to what it smells like. Sadly, the English language is very short on words to describe scent, probably reflecting our rather inadequate noses. If dogs could speak I imagine they’d have a very varied perfume vocabulary.
Medicinally, Hippeastrums contain over 64 alkaloid compounds, which as we have already noted are poisonous, but which are also anti-parasitic and have psychopharmaceutical properties. Some species of Hippeastrum seem to have interesting anti-depressant and anti-convulsant possibilities, and experimentation has indicated that the bulb may have possible uses as an antibiotic.
Just to return to the name ‘Amaryllis’ for a moment – Amaryllis was a Greek nymph who suffered with unrequited love for the cold-hearted Alteo. In a paroxysm of passion she pierced her heart with a golden arrow and trekked to his door every day for a month, leaving a path of blood splatters en route. These days we would probably call this behaviour stalking, but on the thirtieth day the blood spots transmogrified into red flowers of stupendous size and hue. Alteo finally fell in love with Amaryllis, her heart was healed, and the Dutch bulb trade lurched into action. The rest, my friends, is history.
And you might also expect that the amaryllis/Hippeastrum would invite the attention of poets, and so it does. I adore this poem by American poet Deborah Digges, who died in 2009 and who sounds like a most generous teacher of other poets. She explores both the beauty and the absurdity of the amaryllis, a plant which, in its super-abundance, teeters on the very edge of ‘too much’.
by Deborah Digges
So this is the day the fat boy learns to take the jokes
by donning funny hats, my Amaryllis,
my buffoon of a flower,
your four white bullhorn blossoms like the sirens
in a stadium through which the dictator announces he’s in love.
Then he sends out across the land a proclamation—
there must be music, there must be stays of execution
for the already dying.
That’s how your pulpy sex undoes me and your seven
leaves, unsheathed. How you diminish
my winter windows, and beyond them, the Atlantic.
How you turn my greed ridiculous.
Now it’s as if I could believe in having children after forty,
or, walking these icy streets, greet sullen strangers
like a host of former selves, so ask them in, of course,
and listen like one forgiven to their crimes.
Dance with us and all our secrets,
dance with us until our lies,
like death squads sent to an empty house, put down,
finally, their weapons, peruse the family
portraits, admire genuinely the bride.
Stay with me in this my exile
or my returning, as if to love the tyrant one more time.
O my lily, my executioner, a little stooped, here,
listing, you are the future bending
to kiss the present like a sleeping child.
Photo One by By Averater – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47076787
Photo Two by By Daniel Macher – AmaryllisUploaded by Epibase, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8933832
Photo Three by Pictures taken by Raul654 around Washington DC on May 7, 2005.