As a professional gardener and passionate plants person, I find myself in garden centres and nurseries throughout the year. I like to look for inspiration, and immerse myself in the world of flora, planning for the oncoming growing season and much-awaited springtime sun. You’ve likely noticed the growing variety of forced winter and spring flowering “Amaryllis” bulbs that are now stocked.
These bulbs aren’t only stocked in garden centres: even supermarkets carry them throughout the bleak winter months.
These are indeed great flowering perennials that would add a little colour and brightness to your home throughout the colder months. That said, these are more likely to be of the commercially grown “Hippeastrum” genus, and marketed under the “Amaryllis” name.
With this in mind, I’d like to explore the South African genus of the true Amaryllis. I’ll review some of the newer hybrid varieties, and offer you greater understanding of these ornamental beauties. Although un-forced for the winter holiday period, they bring just as much beauty to their surroundings in the autumn.
Origins of the Amaryllis
This is a small genus of large flowering bulbs native to the Western Cape in Southern Africa. Although the name is commonly used for hybrid Hippeastrums, there are actually only two species in the true genus. These are the Amaryllis belladonna, and the recently discovered Amaryllis paradisicola. The Amaryllis paradisicola is not currently being commercially produced, though there is great excitement surrounding its potential.
So why is there such confusion?
Well, Hippeastrums also grow from bulbs with similar funnel-shaped flowers. In contrast, they’re generally evergreen, and winter dormant. They’re actually a native South American bulb with a different stem structure from that of the Amaryllis.
Back in 1753, the great Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus mistakenly placed both of these tropical flowering perennial species in the same genus. Since then, years of great debates have ensued, which eventually resulted in an official separation in 1987. In that year, the true Amaryllis genus was define as being the native South African bulb.
Although related to each other and in the same plant family, the South American plants are of the “Hippeastrum” genus. These are generally what we see for sale around holiday time.
The Amaryllis belladonna is the most common manufactured species, also known as the “Jersey Lily “and the “Naked Lady”, both of which flower in the autumn.
“Belladonna” is a Latin descriptive for “Beautiful Lady”, whilst “Amaryllis” is derived from the Greek “amarullis”. She was a beautiful Roman shepherdess often mentioned in classical Greek mythology.
Exotic Flower Structure
Each bulb produces either a single or two mid-green stems up to 60 cm in height. Each bears a cluster of up to 12 long, highly fragrant, trumpet-shaped flowers at their tops. The flowers open to an impressive 10 cm in diameter, creating a huge set of blooms per plant.
It’s no wonder that these stunningly bold flora created quite a stir in the Victorian era. Firstly, they grabbed the attention of eager Europeans, and soon spread further afield. These exotic flowering belladonna lilies were seen as a symbol of all that is grand and ornate. Victorians were “full of pride” to own such a wondrous flowering perennial, hence the Amaryllis’s association with pride, and its relevance to all that is beautiful.
Amazingly, the Amaryllis bulbs can live to a ripe age of 75 years, but this doesn’t mean they’ll flower every year. Natively, in mountainous regions of the Fynbos heathlands, flowering only occurs after subsequent bush fires.
Such dense vegetation prevents the plant from growing until they have enough light. Within these habitats, Amaryllis concentrations are found to be very localized. This is due to both the large size and heavy weight of the seeds. In more open habitats of the Western Cape, however, the Amaryllis will flower annually.
Here we have a selection of some of best varieties of the true Amaryllis species. Their flowers are generally light in colour, appearing before the leaves show themselves.
Browse through the best of this truly impressive collection to add a little sunshine to your day.
The original and beautiful flowering bulb, with dark purple flower stems and the brightest pink trumpet-shaped flowers, each with a white throat. Superb for a sunny and sheltered site, offering an upright growth habit and strap-like mid-green leaves. Expect a height of around 60–70 cm.
Amaryllis belladonna “Hathor”
An outstanding variety of this ornamental perennial with stout stems and heavily fragranced, pure white, trumpet-shaped flowers, each with a yellow throat. Enjoys a sunny position to reach its full potential of 80 cm high, each flower growing up to 10 cm in length. Strap-like, semi-erect, mid-green basal leaves appear after flowering.
Over the years, there have been many hybrid intergeneric crosses between Amaryllis belladonna and other members within the Amaryllidinae family. Amongst others, these include Crinum, Boophone, Brunsvigia, and Strumoria.
In the 1800’s, an unknown cross hybrid was bred in Australia, producing flowers with colour variations of white, peach, cream, peach, magenta and red. Many flowers of the hybrid varieties have distinct colours and markings, ranging from stripes and veining to coloured edges and white or pale throats.
These differ greatly from the from the original pale pink Amaryllis belladonna. Hybrid varieties also produce a far more rounded flower head than the original species, and are adaptable for year-round watering and feeding.
x Amarcrinum memoria -corsii
A fabulous and most successful hybrid variety between the Amaryllis belladonna and Crinum with large and loose, soft pink, funnel-shaped blooms from late summer through to October. A highly fragrant perennial and popular ornamental garden bulb. Height and Spread to around 1 meter.
x Amarygia parkeri
A reliable cross between two South African genera: Amaryllis belladonna and Brunsvigia josephinae. Exotic, deep rose-coloured, funnel-shaped blooms with creamy yellow and white throats which appear in the early autumn. It produces strap-shaped, basal leaves after flowering, and grows to a height and spread of around 1 metre.
x Amarygia bidwellii
Originally raised by an Australian horticulturalist named Bidwell in 1870. This cultivar produces the most exuberant flower heads, containing up to a massive 40 flowers. It’s a stunning, rare species: a cross between the Amaryllis belladonna and the Brunsvigia orientalis.
The “Ameliae” variety is possibly one of the best I’ve seen, with a circle of large, fragrant, deep-pink trumpet flowers atop a metre tall, upright dark stem. A real star for the garden.
This one’s a close relation to the “Amarygia bidwellii” above, which was later back-crossed onto the Amaryllis belladonna, creating this wonderfully floriferous variety. The “Multiflora” makes an impressive show with widely-flaring trumpet-shaped flowers, including some superb white flowering forms with creamy yellow throats.
x Amarine tubergenii “Zwanenburg”
This handsome variety was originally raised in the Netherlands in 1940, and is a cross between the Amaryllis belladonna and Nerine bowdenii. A very popular perennial bulb that produces sweetly fragrant, rounded flower heads in mid summer. Each head is comprised of large umbels of deep pink, striking flowers—much like the structure of the “Nerine”, but with broader and darker petals.
It grows to a height of 70 cm and width of around 30 cm.
Planting Your Amaryllis
When to Plant
Bulbs are available when in dormancy throughout the year. I would recommend planting your Amaryllis bulbs in late summer, before they start to grow. They need to be planted in a well-drained and gritty soil, with the top of the bulb just above the soil line.
Water your bulb well in the autumn if the weather is fairly hot and dry.
Where to Plant
If you live in a temperate area, you can plant your amaryllis bulbs outdoors. They’re happy in a sunny, sheltered site with coldest temperatures of around minus 10. As a result, they’re especially suitable in zones 9–10. These stunning plants grow particularly well in Mediterranean regions, with their warmer, drier weather systems and little risk of frosts, which can cause damage to the bulb and hamper flowering.
Extensive sunlight will produce better flowering specimens, and these mature plants don’t like to be moved too often. Only lift the bulbs when the clumps become too thick, or when the soil around them needs enhancing or replacing.
In zones with colder weather systems, you can plant your amaryllis bulbs into a large pot and over-winter it indoors. The pot will need to be quite large to accommodate both the bulb and extensive root system. Ensure your potting compost contains a good percentage of grit, which will help excess water to drain away.
Spacings and Staking
A fully-grown Amaryllis can reach a height of around a metre and a spread of anything from around 60 cm to 1 metre.
I tend to use a short but strong bamboo cane to give support to the flower stems. These can be massive and quite heavy, so I would definitely recommend staking your plant.
General Maintenance for your Amaryllis Bulbs
When dormant, your plant will need to have a dry resting period. Keep your plant moderately watered during the growth period. Your stored Amaryllis bulbs have all the nutrients within them to bloom, therefore there’s no need to add extra feed to your watering regime when they’re in flower.
Once your Amaryllis has flowered and the flower stems have died down, you can cut them off. The basal mid-green leaves will then start to grow, reaching up to one meter high.
As with all plants, the foliage plays an important role in the bulbs life cycle. It allows the Amaryllis to regenerate, building essential food reserves for the following year.
Amaryllis reproduce by growing offset bulbs nexts to the mother bulb. When your plant has matured, you can lift them and remove the young offsets from the clump. Beware, however, as these are slow-growing storage organs: it can take up to five years for a young bulb to reach a decent size.
You can also propagate Amaryllis plants from collected and dried seeds.
Using a seed tray, simply place your dry seeds on the surface of some moist potting compost. Place the seed tray under plastic or glass, as this will acheive the correct germination humidity and should encourage germination to take place.
Not all seeds will be mature enough to germinate, so don’t be disappointed! When your seedlings are strong enough, redistribute them, leaving a spacing of 3 inches between plants. It can take many years for your seedling to flower, but it is definitely worth the wait!
The problematic arch enemy of the Amaryllis is the “Lily Borer”. This bold-striped yellow and black caterpillar bores into the plant’s stems and bulbs.
Another pest is the large “Narcissus Bulb Fly”, whose presence can cause damage to the bulb.
Common garden pests such as slugs and snails can also cause damage to the strap-like foliage. These tend to be especially present when the weather is damp. In addition to picking them off, you can use slug pellets or organic measures to deter and eradicate them.
Common indoor pests sap-sucking aphids, woolly mealy bugs, and red spider mites. These can all be a problem when growing your Amaryllis in a greenhouse. A suitable pesticide can be used to eradicate these problems: just follow the manufacturers’ instructions.
Good news for the Amaryllis and the plant owner alike, is that this plant species is pretty much disease free. However, over-watering pot-planted specimens can cause the bulb to rot.
Best Companion Plants
When growing outdoors, I love the spherical flowering head of the Agapanthus against the trumpet-shaped blooms of the Amaryllis. These tend to grow a fair bit lower than the Amaryllis and create an attractive distraction from the huge stems of this “Belladonna Lily”.
Further great companions are:
- “Nepeta”– with their bright green foliage, bushy habit and pretty blue flower spires
- “Santolinia” – a delicate glaucas foliage topped with bright yellow, tiny pom pom flower heads
- “Phlox” – a mainstay in many herbaceous beds with great flowering potential over a very long season