Scratching my head for something suitably seasonal, and having previously looked at poinsettia and mistletoe but reluctant to do the obvious like Christmas Trees, holly or ivy, it occurred to me that very little has been written about Naked Ladies…. in a horticultural sense at least!
As I’m sure you could tell from the pictures I’m not talking about the obvious but about amaryllis. Who hasn’t fallen for the voluptuous charms of those huge brightly coloured trumpets, either to brighten up their own windowsill or as safe and acceptable Christmas present for their mother-in-law, next-door neighbour or work colleague? Showy, long lasting and, even better, usually not very expensive. What’s not to like?
So why does the caption say Hippeastrum? What’s it got to do with a Church of England vicar? And where are the naked ladies?
It all starts with the great Linnaeus who, in the 18thc, began the naming and classification of what has now become a very popular pot-plant and Christmas season’s best-selling cut flower.
His work was corrected by a botanically-minded vicar in the 19thc, but he in turn was proved mistaken. But by then it was too late and most of the rest of the world had been confused.
Botanists finally came to the rescue in the late 20thc but only by abandoning one of their principal rules which is that the first proper description and name of a plant is the one that sticks when plant families are reorganized.
If you google “Amaryllis”, apart from commercial info about where to buy the bulbs etc, you’ll probably get one or other version of a tale supposedly from Greek mythology. The central theme is however always much the same.
Amaryllis was a shepherdess who fell in love with a handsome but cold-hearted shepherd. She is desperate to win his love and attention, so consults an oracle which tells her a good way of going about it is to stick an arrow in her heart to draw blood!
Unsurprisingly, as she makes her way to his house she leaves a trail of drops of blood. They spring up as scarlet flowers and when he sees them he realises he did love her after all… and they all lived happily ever after, whilst the flower was given her name.
It’s a nice story but being a sceptic I’ve looked high and low for an original classical source for this without much success. Amaryllis appears briefly in some verse by the Greek poet Theocritus and again in Virgil’s Eclogues, but there’s no sign of that particular story. Instead Amaryllis seems just to be used as the name of a stock character – a pretty unspoiled peasant shepherdess – [not exactly the image portrayed in the painting] and that’s how she continued to be used in later poetry, drama and song.
The big problem with the story is that the flower that supposedly sprang up from her blood can’t be amaryllis [or any of the bulbs in its wider family] simply because they weren’t known in the ancient world. Instead they come from two completely different areas of the world: southern Africa and South America. So what happened?
As usual it’s a problem of taxonomy – the classification and naming of plants. This is often complicated but in this case even more so than usual and had I realised I might have picked a lighter and more Christmassy subject. Too late now! Instead I’ve tried to sort out a simplified version of the story ….but if you still get confused don’t worry, so am I, even after having rewritten it several times to try and get it right.
Let’s start with the plant officially named Amaryllis belladonna today. It was first recorded as growing in Cardinal Barberini’s famous garden in Rome, by his gardener who also happened to be a Jesuit priest Father Giovanni Ferrari.
In 1633 Father Ferrari described the many exotic plants growing there in De Florum Cultura, which was illustrated with meticulously detailed engravings. It included a whole group of bulbs including nerines and haemanthus as well as amaryllis -which he thought were all different sorts of “narcissus lilies” from “India” although in fact they are all from southern Africa.
However it wasn’t long before bulbs producing generally similar looking flowers were arriving from South America as well. For example Maria Sybilla Merian, the pioneering Dutch plant collector and artist not only painted some in Surinam but took bulbs back to the Netherlands with her.
Linnaeus saw some of these growing in the Haarlem garden of of George Clifford, an extremely wealthy plant collector and he included them in his catalogue of the garden, the Hortus Cliffortianus , in 1738, naming them snappily “Amaryllis spatha multiflora, corollis campanulatis, aequalibus, genitalibus declinatus.” In Species Plantarum  where he gives plant species two names for the first time this becomes Amaryllis belladonna.
Amaryllis was derived either from the shepherdess or the Greek word amarysso [sparkling] or maybe both- while belladonna is Italian for beautiful lady. But because its flowers appear on bare stems before the leaves emerge, it is also known by the more evocative name of “naked ladies”, so my headline is justified, albeit a bit sensationalized.
In 1775 Linnaeus received some more bulbs from South America including what he called, equally snappily, “Amaryllis 98 dubia Mer. surin. t. 22 Corolla basi laciniarum barbatum.” These were written up and described by his son, Carl junior, in the 1781 Supplementum Botanicum. By 1789 specimens of this bulb were growing at the royal gardens at Kew and were listed in the garden’s catalogue, Hortus Kewensis, as Amaryllis equestris.
So at least one thing is clear: it was bulbs from South America that Linnaeus was calling Amaryllis.
Except that Linnaeus also included other several bulbs, such as nerines and haemanthus, in the same amaryllis family, and all of these are from southern Africa.
So where do “Hippeastrum” fit into the story?
That’s where the vicar comes in. The Rev. William Herbert was vicar of Spofforth in Yorkshire and also a keen and highly respected botanist, with a particular passion for bulbs. In 1821 he published a short treatise on the amaryllis family and in 1837 he followed it up with a much bigger book on the subject: Amaryllidaceae . In it he took on the Herculean task of sorting out the classification of this whole group of bulbs.
In the end he concluded that there were enough major differences between those of South African and South American origin to put them in separate genera, but he somehow managed to overlook the fact that Linnaeus had given the name Amaryllis to specimens from South America and instead he proposed renaming those as Hippeastrum, leaving Amaryllis for the South African ones.
Hippeastrum was an odd choice of name, but Herbert wrote “I have named [them] Hippeastrum or Knights-star-lily, pursuing the idea which gave rise to the name Equestris” the name first used by Linnaeus the younger although no-one knows why. The Botanical Magazine in 1795 claimed that it was because “The spatha is composed of two leaves, which standing up at a certain period of the plant’s flowering like ears, give to the whole flower a fancied resemblance of a horse’s head; whether LINNÆUS derived his name of equestris from this circumstance or not, he does not condescend to inform us.”
By 1803 the magazine carried a different story: “this name was given from the remarkable likeness the front view of it has to a star of some of the orders of knight-hood; an appearance well expressed by Jacquin’s figure in the Hortus Schoenbrunnensis.”
So the short answer is: who knows what Linnaeus was thinking or why Herbert felt justified in renaming the wrong group of bulbs! As my granny would have said – you pays your money and you takes your choice!
Neverthless Herbert’s reorganization was generally accepted and meant that Amaryllis now applied just to the bulbs from South Africa. With the later reclassification of all the other bulb species Amaryllis belladonna was soon left as the only species in the genus.
It remained alone until 1972 when a previously unknown bulb was discovered in leaf in a remote gorge in South Africa. A single flower was spotted 23 years later, and finally botanists discovered a flowering stand of them in 1997. This bulb was eventually named as a second species of amaryllis: A. paradisicola.
Herbert’s new grouping of Hippeastrum , on the other hand, is sizeable, with the World Checklist of Selected Plant Families listing 91 species in 2015, compared with just the 14 known to Herbert.
The final twist in the story doesn’t come until much later when the error the Rev Herbert had committed was realised. Johannes Uphof wrote a very detailed account of everything in 1938 but it was not until 1987 at the 14th International Botanical Congress that a final decision on naming was reached.
Although it was recognized that Linneaus had given the name Amaryllis to South American specimens and therefore under botanical rules it should have precedence and make Hippeastrum invalid, it was felt that it was too late for the public imagination – and commercial nurseries. So the established rules were broken and the “traditional” name allowed to stand. Amaryllis was declared a nomen conservandum or “conserved name” and so correct regardless of priority.
Amaryllis and Hippeastrum are, unlike their namesake shepherdess, a bit free with their favours and they hybridize easily with other species.
As early as 1799 Arthur Johnson, a watchmaker near Liverpool managed to cross two different species which were later named Hippeastrum × ‘Johnsonii’ or ”hardy amaryllis’ or St. Joseph’s lily. By the 1860s Veitch’s nursery in Exeter and Chelsea took the lead with breeding from new species sent back by their collector Richard Pearce. Their Hippeastrum. leopoldii had much larger open flowers than the species, with up to six flowers on a stem and it set the standard for modern commercial development.
Amaryllis can also be easily crossed with other compatible bulbs such as Brunsvigia -which has led to hybrids known as Amyryga (syn x Brunsdonna) – and Crinum which has created Amarcrinum syn x crinodonna. Such hybrids can also interbreed so their offspring have a complicated and almost untangleable family tree.
This capacity to hybridize freely began to be properly exploited after the second world war with commercial breeding programmes springing up all round the world trying to unlock more of the potential genetic diversity of the various species. Breeders were aiming for an increasing range of flower size, shape and colour – hippeastrum come in every shade but blue, pure deep yellow and purple – and often aiming at fragrance [which exists in only a few species] and double flowers.
As you might expect the market is dominated, as in most of the horticultural trade, by the Dutch, but other countries notably South Africa, Israel, Japan, Brazil and and the United States, particularly Florida, are beginning to play significant roles.
Each of these national programmes have produced remarkably different strains and there are now well over 600 cultivars commercially available but it’s a slow process.
Seeds do not breed true and bulbs produced this way take about six years to bloom. Off-set bulblets/bulbils do come true but still take 3-4 years to flower, and so the bulbs you buy today are likely to have been produced by twin-scaling or increasingly, like orchids, by in-vitro micro-propagation. The speed of commercial propagation is very important for a plant’s success in the world of modern horticulture and that’s a big part of how hippeastrum have become so popular and hold such an important place in the trade for sale as cut flowers or potted plants.
So despite what it says on the label when you buy an “Amaryllis” bulb this Christmas you’re actually buying a Hippeastrum hybrid but that’s probably better than going to a garden centre and asking to buy a Naked Lady or two!
And on that happy note…
If you want to know more then a good place to start is by following the links on the Kew Science website Hippeastrum page. There is also a much fuller and fiendishly complicated account of the story of the taxonomy of Amaryllis and Hippeastrum which can be found in Uphof’s The History of Nomenclature: Amaryllis and Hippeastrum, in Herbertia 1938 BUT be warned you might need some neurofen or a stiff drink afterwards!