Sunday, December 24, 2017

Plant Story--Amaryllis, well, actually Hippeastrum

Amaryllis, the big bulbs that are often given as holiday gifts because the flowers that emerge are so glorious, are in the genus Hippeastrum not the genus Amaryllis. The naked ladies that bloomed in the garden in August, those were Amaryllis.

Scientific name Hippaecastrum, common name amaryllis
The genus Amaryllis is from South Africa, with only one species, Amaryllis belladonna. They are pretty much all pink flowers that spring out of the earth after the leaves have withered, hence often called naked ladies. They are also called belladonna amaryllis and belladonna lily. Here are pictures online: link
Hippeastrum buds

Buds of Hipeastrum, amaryllis

Amaryllis, the holiday gift bulb, in the genus Hippeastrum. They are are South American, with about 55 species, 34 in Brazil (Brazil is big!)

Both Amaryllis and Hippeastrum are genera in the plant family Amaryllidaceae, a big group of lily-like plants. One reason for the confusion of names is that both came to the attention of Europeans about the same time and are superficially similar. They are related, since they are in the same plant family, but it is a long way from South Africa to South America: they can't have grown in the same place for millions of years and a common ancestor is not likely more recent than 100 million years ago when Africa and South America were both part of the large Southern Hemisphere continent Gondwana. (Link animation).

Linneaus named Amaryllis in the late 1700s, It was the middle 1800s when botanists realized the plants from South America should not be lumped with the African plants and the genus Hippeastrum was created for the former.

Common names for lily-like plants that were brought to Europe and North America from around the world were and are a mess. For example, Amaryllis belladonna,

Hippeastrum buds opening
Same plant a week later
Colchicum speciosum, C. autumnale, Lycoris squamigera and L. radiata all are called naked ladies as a common name. All can be pink and have lily-like flowers that come up with no leaves in sight.

Hippeastrum stole amaryllis as its chief common name and the plant with scientific name Amaryllis has to make do with being called belladonna amaryllis.

Hippeastrum, which I've always called amaryllis and will call amaryllis for the rest of this post, has many varieties and hybrids in commercial production, with colors from the red-orange at the top of this post to variegated to white and nearly-yellow to pink and red.

Hippeastrum species are found across South America, with species native to Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia Eucador and Nicaragua at least. Some are rare to endangered in nature, probably due to a combination of over-collecting and habitat destruction. Imagine the big flowers of the amaryllis plants we raise in pots growing wild in a meadow: awesome! (photo  photo2 both from Brazil)

Most bloom in the spring in South America, so in September to November, then store energy from the leaves all summer. Few are at all frost tolerant so they are from subtropical or tropical areas, which are diverse across South America. The big bulbs don't tolerate soggy soil, though, so look for them in warm dry habitats.
Hippeastrum almost in flower
Flowering continues

In nature amaryllis are pollinated by carpenter bees (tropical bees that make bumblebees look small) and moths. Some of the cultivated species are sterile and only reproduce by producing smaller bulbs from the main bulb. Other species self-pollinate easily, frequently making seeds. Most species, however need pollen to be carried from one plant to another to form seeds. Seed production drains energy, so for a bigger bulb, gardeners cut off the seed heads. Most will periodically produce small bulbs from the main bulb.

The plant contains poisonous alkaloids so shouldn't be eaten by people or their pets. You can imagine why: a bad taste and an upset stomach by animals that nibble the plant is a trait that protects the big flowers and leaves. If you damage the flowers or a big single leaf, it is rare that the plant has energy enough for a replacement that growing season.

In cultivation an amaryllis bulb can  live 75 years. In nature it is likely to have grown more slowly but might well live equally long. That makes them very stable members of their plant community. We don't think of bulbs or other small plants living a long time, but many do.

Flowering by the amaryllis takes over my blog post:

Hippeastrum flower
Looking into the flower.

Hippeastrum, amaryllis, flowers fully open

Hippeastrum, amaryllis, flowers fully open
They are spectacular flowers, wherever you see them.

Buy a bulb and watch this transformation in your own livingroom. Or better still, share the fun: give someone an amaryllis (Hippeastrum) bulb!

Comments and corrections welcomed

Wikipedia, quoting the World Checklist of Plant Species online at Kew Gardens, says there are 91 species of Hippeastrum; the Angiosperm Phylogeny website, which I know better, says 55 species. Apparently there are many hard-to-classify forms.


Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
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Other posts you might like:
Poinsettias The Beautiful Iconic Poinsettia link

Holiday Cacti - A Christmas Cactus Named Junior  link 
 Christmas cactus, Junior

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