• By Janine Pineo •
It’s that time of year when carols rumble through the store aisles – actually, that was Halloween, too, but who’s keeping track – and people of all ilks pursue a cherished gardening tradition.
You know the one I mean. It begins with a C.
No, not Chia.
They all want a Christmas plant.
Some opt for the poinsettia. Others prefer paperwhites. There’s a smattering of folk in the Christmas cactus group. The more radical go for tulips and daffodils, while a few find a potted holly or fir more acceptable.
I am here to tell you about the other plant that is a holiday icon. I don’t know why, because it can’t winter over in Maine. It isn’t in any carol I can think of. It is not particularly attractive when it is not blooming.
But when it is blooming, it lights up a room. It sparkles in red or white or both. There are other colors, but we’re discussing Christmas and can’t be bothered with the peach, pink or maroon ones.
I am, indeed, talking about Hippeastrum, that yule flower of yore.
You know. Hippeastrum.
Sound it out with me.
There you go.
I know you’re thinking: Those crazy botanists, what will they think of next?
How about that there is an Amaryllis out of Africa that is commonly called belladonna lily, not am-a-ryl-lis. And that what we know as am-a-ryl-lis is called Hippeastrum?
Who knew? Who cares?
And if you think all of that is weird, consider the following tales of absurdity.
Mythologically speaking, the amaryllis got its start when a Greek shepherdess tried to win the love of a shepherd by finding a new flower.
Why a flower and not a sheep, I cannot explain.
After a consult with the full-of-bright-suggestions Oracle at Delphi, our lovelorn shepherdess stabbed herself repeatedly with an arrow while vowing her undying devotion for the shepherd, who I am sure was simply too busy watching his and her sheep to notice the woman had, perhaps, lost her mind.
(WARNING: Do not operate heavy machinery when reading the next paragraph – actually that is good advice for pretty much the whole newspaper. The paragraph may cause fainting or loss of a meal. Then again, we’re discussing Greek mythology, so you probably saw this coming.)
The shepherdess actually bled, dripping onto the ground, and from that spot sprung a splendid red flower.
Our girl got her man. And a few scars. And a splendid red flower.
Botanically speaking, the amaryllis was discovered in 1828 by a physician from Leipzig, Germany.
Eduard Frederich Poeppig was in Chile wandering about the Andes looking for plants when he came across Hippeastrum, which we can only assume was without a name tag.
Several websites offer the heartwarming tale of what followed this seminal event:
Poeppig was so delighted that he was, according to a biographer, “often compelled to relieve his full heart by uttering loud shouts of joy, to which his faithful dog and sole companion and witness of his delight responded with howls of equal delight.”
Well, it could have happened that way.
Personally speaking, my amaryllis came from Holland via Wal-Mart.
Straight from a shelf. No arrows involved. No howling dog at my feet. OK, I may have cooed a bit when I saw the color of the double flowers: a crisp white with bright red edging each petal and blushing the center of the flower. Then I read the name: Elvas. I’m not sure if that means it is Elvis-ish or elfish or an elfish Elvis.
It doesn’t matter. A rose is a rose is a Hippeastrum, you know.
I did hesitate when I picked it up because I always feel guilty just tossing the bulb out after it blooms, but I usually convince myself that it is a lot of work to prepare the bulb for next year. So I waffled and then hightailed it to the checkout, figuring I’d decide later.
My guilt grew when I discovered on some Cooperative Extension websites that it isn’t all that hard to keep the bulb for another year. As it grows, feed the plant with a complete 20-20-20 water-soluble fertilizer every month. Cut off blooms as they fade to prevent seed formation, which depletes the bulb, which already has shrunk in size during flowering. If you keep it going until summer, plant pot and all outside in a partially shaded spot, but protect it from spring and fall frosts. When the leaves have died, bring it inside in September and place the pot in a cool, dry spot out of the light – no watering – until new growth appears. Remove the first inch or so of potting soil and replace it with new, adding a teaspoon of bone meal and avoiding roots. Then start watering and fertilizing for the next show.
It’s really no worse than some of the houseplants I have.
Then I came across one fateful line on a Web site out of New Zealand.
It read: “An amaryllis bulb may produce flowers for up to 75 years.”
Oh, the burden.
I have decided to try to live up to my commitment and someday leave to my heirs a perpetual Christmas gift.
Unless I outlast it and live to be 111.
First published in the Bangor Daily News in November 2003.
2013 update: Sadly, I managed to shorten the lifespan of my 2003 amaryllis bulbs. I think one made it three years under my fateful watch. The good news is we have a new one this year. Well, good news for us, not so much for the amaryllis.