Sandy’s Garden ... Amaryllis, or is it Hippeastrum?

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

I’m never averse to copying a good idea when I recognise one.

I shall admit the idea of buying what we usually call an amaryllis now, rather than before Christmas, belongs to Monty Don. As soon as I read Monty’s suggestion, I realised that, while we are very willing to wait for what used to be the post-Christmas sales in the hope of picking up some bargains, we don’t use the same technique in garden centres. Well, why not give it a whirl and see if there are any bargains to be had among items which the centres had intended should be sold before Christmas and which they reckon won’t appeal to customers now?

Obviously, as with any sales merchandise, the wise buyer will have nothing to do with stock which is past its sell-by date. But many an amaryllis bulb which was healthy in the days before Christmas is still healthy now, having been kept inside a garden centre where there was never the slightest chance of frost nor any expectation that the temperature would rise above the mid-fifties Fahrenheit – say the low teens Celsius. And if such a bulb is planted now in accordance with the instructions on the packet, there is every reason to expect to enjoy its large, trumpet-shaped flowers atop tall stems in the spring. And, given that the Royal Horticultural Society recommends planting the bulbs between October and January … January, please note … to produce flowers between six and eight weeks after planting, who decreed that amaryllis should be a Christmas-flowering plant rather than an Easter-flowering bloom?

Amaryllis was a shepherdess in Greek mythology, a maiden who fell head-over-heels in love with the impossibly handsome Alteo, a cold-hearted young man who spurned her amorous advances. In a desperate … and decidedly dramatic … bid to win his affection, she pierced her heart with a golden arrow and shed drops of her heart’s blood along the path from her home to his cottage for thirty consecutive, fruitless days. On the thirtieth day, magnificent, blood-red flowers sprang up where her blood had been shed, softening Alteo’s heart. Their romance blossomed, Amaryllis’s heart was healed and she gave her name to these beautiful flowers – until botanists decided, in the early nineteenth century, that the amaryllis was a naturally-occurring hybrid of the genus Hippeastrum rather than a separate type of plant.

And how did Hippeastrum come by its name? That’s a much less romantic story. Hippeastrum comes from the Greek word for a horse - ‘ippos. (The symbol like an apostrophe in ‘ippos represents the letter ‘h’ in English, there being no letter ‘h’ in ancient Greek.) And the reason for calling it the ‘horse-flower’ was because the bloom was thought to be similar to a horse’s head. But why should we care, we who grow the bulbs for trumpet-shaped flowers … or horse-head-shaped flowers if you prefer …and are perfectly happy to continue to call them amaryllis?

Amaryllis is a tender bulb which must be planted in a pot indoors. The amaryllis bulbs which can be found in nearly every garden centre often come in a package deal … pot, bulb, compost, and instructions … and, gentle reader, I urge you to follow these instructions from the outset rather than reading the instructions when all else has failed and the bulb has given up the ghost! And I shall finish with a statement on a U.S. website which came as news to me. “The genus Hippeastrum has yielded several substances with medically useful properties, one of which has shown promise as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.” Well, well.