The Amaryllis is a single species of plant with many cultivators. The Hippeastrum, commonly known as the ‘Knight’s Star’, can easily be confused with the Amaryllis and is sometimes even sold as one, even though it is from an entirely different plant family. This is a result of their similarities in appearance, characteristics, growth and flowering cycles.
The Amaryllis has attractive green foliage throughout the year but only flowers once between December and June, usually for 7 to 10 weeks (making it a popular Christmas flower). However, you need to be patient because the Amaryllis needs to be mature before it will flower (usually three to four years old), which is why bulbs ready to bloom may be quite expensive to buy.
Once you have a flowering Amaryllis bulb though you won’t be disappointed – they are easy to grow and can last up to 75 years! If storing the bulbs before planting, caution needs to be taken as placing them near apples actually sterilises them. These plants have an unusual flowering cycle; the strap-shaped leaves are produced in the autumn or early spring, but by late spring they have died down and then lie dormant until late summer, when one or two leafless stems emerge boasting clusters of striking trumpet-shaped flowers at the head. The lack of leaves is why the Amaryllis is known as ‘naked ladies’. The ‘Belladonna Lily’ is the other common name for the Amaryllis, which means beautiful lady.
This beautiful flower was discovered in the late 1600s and early 1700s in its natural habitat of South Africa. It is also native to the Americas, Argentina, Mexico and parts of the Caribbean – it grows profusely in Barbados. This plant was a particular favourite of the wealthy cotton plantation owners in the Caribbean – Amaryllis bulbs were transported as cargo along with slaves because they were treasured by the rich as a symbol of wealth, similar to the amount of slaves you could afford. Once discovered and introduced into Europe, cultivation of the plant began on a large scale. This is why today we have a variety of Amaryllis flowers to choose from, ranging from pure white through to scarlet and from striped to blends of colours (usually shades of pink or red with white). In the wild, the flowers appear white with crimson veins – occasionally pink or purple may occur naturally as well.
The name Amaryllis derives from the Greek Latin meaning ‘to sparkle’. The story behind the name is that Amaryllis was a timid and shy shepherdess, a virginal nymph, whose love for a gardener was unrequited; endeavouring to impress said gardener, Alteo, she walked the path to his door for one month, piercing her own heart each day with a golden arrow. The blood flowing from her heart created beautiful flowers blooming in scarlet hues along the pathway. Today the flower symbolises love, radiant beauty, determination and pride. Medicinally, the plant is poisonous – it is known today as the ‘deadly nightshade’. In small doses, however, it is used in homeopathic remedies for treating colds, infections and aches.