Ceci n’est pas un Amaryllis

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Do you ever forget the names of plants? I do, frequently. I have long conversations in my head that go along the lines of: “What is the name of that dratted plant? It’s on the tip of my tongue, I know it begins with an … M . It definitely begins with an M. Oh yes, it’s an Amaryllis. I knew it had an M in it somewhere.” So it’s twice as hard when said plant has two names, and if I can remember Amaryllis, I can never remember the other name, and vice versa.

At a time of year where there is little floral colour about that hasn’t been shipped in from the Netherlands, these beauties cheer us up no end. The kudos of effortlessly producing such flouncing, extravagant trumpets from a bulb in a pot is too good to pass over, so it’s no surprise that so many of us have at least one potted Amaryllis at home. Except here’s the thing: none of us has a potted Amaryllis at home.

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Ceci n’est pas un Amaryllis. It’s not even a picture of an Amaryllis. What we have in here is in fact a Hippeastrum, except everyone calls them Amaryllis, including purveyors of said bulbs who should know better. A true Amaryllis is a lily-like native of South Africa, and the Hippeastrum that we know and love is from South America. Their taxonomy was under dispute, hence the confusion, until the 14th International Botanical Congress of 1987 settled the matter for once and for all. Thirty years later, Sarah Raven’s website is still declaring that ‘Amaryllis are a tender bulb from Brazil and so need to be grown inside’ without a hint of remorse. Thankfully the RHS, that guardian of botanical rectitude, deals swiftly with our confusion by noting that Hippeastrum are ‘commonly, but incorrectly, known as Amaryllis’. That’s Ms Raven told, though she may be forgiven since she offers such a wide range of beautiful varieties as well as detailed growing advice.

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Many people throw their Hippeastrum bulbs away after they have done their flowering, which is a shame as they can perfectly well be kept year after year with a little care and effort.

Once the flowers have faded (and they die beautifully), the old flower stem should be cut off just above the nose of the bulb, and the plant should be kept fed and watered until the nights are warm enough for it to be put outside. I usually wait for days no less than 14 degrees and nights no less than 10 degrees before putting my tender houseplants outdoors. (Such temperatures usually occur by June for us in coastal Edinburgh.) Once outdoors, it just remains to keep the plant fed and watered in a bright but not too sunny spot, well protected from molluscs. Mine lived in our cold frame for most of last summer, as it proved simply too delicious for the local slug population.

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In late summer, the old leaves can be cut back and the bulb put into dormancy by placing in a cool, dark place for 8 weeks before bringing back indoors to ensure flowering by Christmas. Alternatively, the bulb can be brought back indoors when the night temperatures are starting to drop to below 9 or 10 degrees, and feeding and watering restarted to allow flowering to occur a little later in early spring. The bulb can be repotted every two or three years in well draining but rich compost, always in a pot that is just a little bigger than the bulb itself.

In a Vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden. Do visit her page and see the flowers that she and many garden bloggers across the world have brightened their houses with today.

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29 Comments

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  1. I am always banging on about this. I don’ t know why people insist on calling them Amaryllis. We must start a campaign. I have never got them to bloom following years, thanks for the tip.

    • I think lots of feeding and a summer outdoors is probably the trick. The kerfuffle with dormancy is probably icing on the cake – I don’t bother. Yes, a campaign is clearly in order! The poor experts who had to sit through that tiresome sounding 14th Congress will probably join in gladly.

  2. Beautiful photos of your Hippeastrum. I have a bulb in a brown paper bag that was given to me as an Amaryllis but is, as you rightly point out, most likely to be one of these. I have to confess that I don’t really like them so it’s still in the bag…

  3. I am staring at my ever-growing huge green leaves left from my gorgeous “Amaryllis”. It is SO BIG! So when I put it outside for the summer, leave in this same (smallish) pot? Or put in the ground. I think the former? Just seems that the pot is going to be too small. But then again, the plant is not really growing, right? I’ll try it all and see if I can get it to bloom next Christmas! And yes, I forget plant names all the time and feel well….sort of stupid!

  4. The photos are just divine of the Hippawhatever. My garden is filled with Bromeliad “Something or other” I think I have some Amaryllis I inherited from my father in law in the ground, they have yet to bloom, patience.

  5. I did a number of paintings when I was a student of dying Amaryllis as we all called it then. You are right; it dies beautifully. My offering today is not nearly up to Cathy’s creations and I cannot remember the name of the leaves that compose my creation, so I am happy to hear of your issue with remembering the “M” plant.

  6. You’re right that we will never tire of these. Mine is just beginning to put up two flowering spikes, I’m pleased because it seemed it was nearly rotting when it arrived, the carton having been saturated during delivery.

  7. Oh you are tempting me to keep trying with mine – I have got 4 I saved from previous years and I did half heartedly try and keep them fed and watered for a while, but there will defininitely be no flowers this year. I had just about ecided to ditch them but perhaps I will keep trying… Thanks for encouraging us

  8. … tu Tityre, lentus in umbra
    formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas.
    The delicate phrase falls to pieces if translated, but basically Tityrus made the woods echo with the name of lovely Amaryllis. It’s just as well Virgil wrote the poem before the taxonomists had their wicked way with her, and it’s not at all surprising that plant sellers prefer her to gallumphing Hippeastrum, surely a neuter beast with long hair and flared trousers.
    Breeders have been taking a lot of trouble over her/it recently, to make the stem shorter. I grew H papillo many years ago, and after much patience it produced a splendid striped maroon flower. But the stem was so long your father mocked it as a “monkey up a stick” and I never tried again.

    • Dad only says things like that because he likes the way they sound. Give the plant another go! I am sure you would be good at getting lots of tremendous flowers from it. Poor taxonomists, I am sure they do their best to get things right, though they may have forgotten to consult Virgil. Hippeastrum is nothing to do with hippos or hippies. It is a ‘Knight’s Star’ which is a sort of weapon you fight with in battles and jousts. I noticed that some people’s have short stems, but I think that defeats the purpose.

      • I had no idea, and now I like Hippeastrum even less. It is that horrific spiked ball, on a chain on the end of a shortish pole. Its use was to unhorse an opponent while inflicting maximum additional injury.

  9. It is amazing how long we can fight to preserve well-known names. The Geranium-Pelargonium confusion immediately comes to mind, and I’m currently struggling to remember that what I know as Rhodanthemum is now Pyrethropsis and that the humble coleus is not longer Solenostemon but now Plectranthus. I have both Amaryllis (the real ones) and Hippeastrum in my garden, although none are near to blooming. My Amaryllis belladonna will bloom in summer if I’m lucky and the heat doesn’t kill them. The Hippeastrum, planted outside in the hope they will naturalize as they did in my former garden, will probably bloom in another month or so, assuming the snails don’t eat them.

    • Oh, I do hope your plants survive the snails. Mine was nearly eaten down to the bulb before I spotted what was happening. So many name changes… we can’t forget Dicentra (now Lamprocapnos) and that whatsitsname that comes out in autumn, something lily, which has also changed its name. It begins with a P, I think (or maybe not!).

  10. I have the same conversations! And I get annoyed by nurseries (who should know better) labelling Pelargoniums, also from South Africa, as Geraniums which are hardy little plants and not at all the same! Love your Hippeastrum photos, it is years since I grew one in a pot for Christmas, but seeing yours makes me think I should have another go 🙂

  11. Thank you for clearing up that confusion and also or the advice – every year I plan to buy a bulb or two but they seem so expensive I never do – if they come back in future years it seems much more worthwhile. Lovely photos too!

  12. Wonderful close-ups, Joanna, they show the exquisite beauty of these fair flowers.

  13. Poor Carl von Linné*, he was only trying to help, and his ideas of classification and clear naming – in Latin, then the language of international scholarship – were so obviously right and necessary. The trouble is that science will not stand still and is constantly finding new relationships between plants. Originally the Latin names were stable and the wide variety of vernacular names, even within a single language, were the problem. Now it seems that the local name is the stayer and the Latin name constantly changing. Bluebells are a case in point.
    But – surprise surprise! – it seems that the RHS have relented over Amaryllis and accept the name as English for Hippeastrum, so Sarah Raven et al are not wrong.
    Interestingly there is now a variety of amaryllis suitable for growing outdoor in Britain – Hippeastrum Sonatini. Bloms do them. I fancy H Sonatini Viridi Rascal, but what a revolting name.
    *Carl is better known as Carolus Linnaeus. He had a name change too, acquiring the ‘von’ when he was ennobled.

  14. Guilty m’ lud when it comes to the name but I put it down to my senior years. Fabulous photos as always and some useful advice. I’ve a beautiful white specimen this year with two flowering stalks. I’ve never managed to keep them ticking over from one year to the next but would like to get this one through so have read your post with interest. I will have to give careful consideration to where locate them over the summer. The molluscs regularly visit my cold frame with murderous intent.

  15. I love them too, whatever we may call them! I feel I ought to call them Amaryllis in order for everyone to know what I am talking about. And I don’t want to sound haughty by using the proper name! LOL! I have given up on keeping the bulbs. I think it depends on how healthy they are when first bought.

  16. Beautiful blog! Beautiful photos!

  17. You’ve reminded me to go and check on mine in the greenhouse, alas poor neglected thing

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