If you are lucky enough to be presented with a professionally-assembled bouquet or, for that matter, even an attractive bunch of flowers selected by a professional florist, there’s a fair chance that Alstroemeria will be one of the featured flowers, for Alstroemeria is a florists’ favourite. The reasons are many, but simple to explain, for their slender stems are strong yet support multiple, ruffled, trumpet-shaped flowers that are available in a vast range of colours, usually warm colours like reds, yellows, oranges and pinks, but also in the cooler colours of lavenders and creams through to neutral whites. The petals, attractive as they are when they are simply coloured, are often decorated with tiny spots or stripes. And, as an added bonus, cut Alstroemerias should last about two weeks in water if they are properly prepared by having the bottom inch of the stem cut off to encourage fluid absorption and by being placed in a vase with lukewarm water and, for best results, a floral preservative. Remove any leaves that would otherwise be immersed.
But while specialist plant propagation nurseries nowadays spend huge amounts of time and effort developing and cultivating new hybrids by cross-breeding, ever extending the variety and mix of colours available, Alstroemeria is not a recent introduction to the United Kingdom, for it has been known in these islands for fully 150 years. It takes its name from Baron Claus Alstroemer, who was born in 1736 and became a student of the eminent Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. His wealthy background allowed Baron Alstroemer to undertake expeditions to little-known parts of the world, where he assiduously studied the strange plants he found there and collected seed to bring home. He travelled to South America in 1753, saw these magnificent, lily-like flowers and sent seed back to Linnaeus, who was equally impressed when these seeds grew and flowered. Since the plants were unknown in Europe and had no European name, Linnaeus … who is justly remembered as the originator of the system of nomenclature by which botanists classify and differentiate plants to this day … named it after his student and friend, giving the name the Latin appearance that was very much in fashion for scientific names at that time by calling it Alstroemeria.
Although Baron Alstroemer had sent seed to Europe … the only practical way to transport plants half-way round the globe when a voyage from South America to Europe by sailing ship took an unknown number of weeks according to the perversity of the wind … Alstroemeria are best grown from tubers, the fleshy roots from which the stems spring. And the plant’s similarities to lilies led to it being developed commercially by Dutch bulb growers who, to this very day, keep tight control over many of the hybrids they have developed, including all the white-flowering varieties, protecting them by internationally-recognised plant growers’ rights and refusing to grant any licences for their being grown outwith the Dutch industry.
Alstroemeria has been given a number of common names, of which ‘Peruvian lily’ is probably the most widely used, named for the part of the world from which it originated; it is also known as ‘Lily of the Incas’, ‘Parrot Lily, Princess Lily’ and, in New Zealand, ‘Christmas bell’. Rather ironically, given that all bar one of the common names include the word ‘Lily’, Alstroemerias were reclassified some yeas ago and, instead of being counted as members of the Lily family, they are now seen as first cousins to the Amaryllis. But whatever you call it, and whether you think it more resembles a Lily than an Amaryllis, if you are lucky enough to be presented with bouquet containing Alstroemeria, enjoy your good fortune.
Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society