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by Starr Ockenga
Hardcover, 96 pages
7 1/2 x 10, full-color photographs
Excerpt from Amaryllis
A History of Hippeastrum
Amaryllis: elegant, sensual, and mysterious. A tender tropical plant, the amaryllis bursts into magisterial flower from an oversized bulb.
The virtues of amaryllis are many. To begin with, it is easy to grow. No coddling the first year is necessary, and it does not demand a faux winter in the refrigerator, as do crocus, hyacinth, and tulip. When you purchase your dynamo bulb, whether from the local garden center or from a mail-order nursery, it contains all the resources, energy, and determination to flower-almost no matter what you do. The bulb farm will have pushed, or "forced," your bulb into a state of readiness. The flower bud already resides inside its round belly. All you have to do is give it light and a little water; it is cued to perform.
No wonder, then, that this illustrious bulb has had a remarkable, if sometimes elusive, history.
According to the classical poets Theocritius, Ovid, and Virgil, Amaryllis was a virginal nymph, timid and shy but with a spine of steel. She fell head over heels in love with Alteo, an icy-hearted shepherd reputed to be as handsome as Apollo and as strong as Hercules, and determined that she would be true only to him, no matter what the consequences. Indifferent to her charms, Alteo claimed his only desire was that a new flower be brought to him, a flower that had never before existed in the world. Amaryllis consulted the Oracle at Delphi and was instructed to pierce her heart with a golden arrow at Alteo's door. This she did, dressed in maiden's white, for thirty consecutive nights, dripping blood all the while. The shepherd finally opened his door to discover a flower with crimson petals, which had sprung from the blood of Amaryllis's heart.
Amaryllis, whether female or flower, has been lauded by later poets as well. In his 1637 elegy to a drowned classmate, Lycidas, Milton wrote seductively of being tempted "to sport with Amaryllis in the shade."
Artists and photographers, too, have found inspiration in the flower. Pierre-Joseph Redouté made several meticulously detailed paintings of the amaryllis for Joséphine Bonaparte, suggesting that the empress favored the plant. The German entomologist and fine botanical artist Maria Sibylla Merian, who traveled to South America to paint indigenous moths and butterflies, included a painting of an amaryllis in Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. More recently, numerous Americans, from the Pennsylvania watercolorist Charles Demuth to the West Coast photographer Imogen Cunningham, both of whom made a specialty of rendering flowers closely viewed, celebrated the amaryllis.
Victorian volumes devoted to decoding the language of flowers attribute to the amaryllis characteristics ranging from haughtiness, pride, and determination to timidity and shyness. In her Flora's Dictionary (1829) Mrs. Elizabeth W. Wirt, credited with assembling the first floral dictionary in America, gave the meaning as "Splendid Beauty." A name with such romantic connotations, even contradictions, seems fitting for the queen of all bulbs.
However, the bulb we call amaryllis is not technically an amaryllis at all. Its taxonomy, while charming, is confusing and demands clarification. The actual genus Amaryllis contains only two species, A. belladonna, commonly known as the cape belladonna lily, and A. paradisicola; both come from the Cape Province of South Africa. Apparently, A. belladonna's species name is an incorrect reference to a product favored by Renaissance women called belladonna, Italian for "beautiful woman." This is actually an extract from the deadly nightshade plant, Atropha belladonna, rather than from an amaryllis; when used in eyedrop form it dilated the pupils and made them appear to sparkle. The Greek word amarysso or amarussein, from which "amaryllis" derives, means to sparkle, twinkle, scintillate, or shine. By that circuitous route "amaryllis" became synonymous with female beauty. But do not confuse our hybrids-which have passed through several name changes-with the true amaryllis, A. belladonna, a late-summer flowering bulb often grown in masses in California's Zone 8 gardens.
One of the first mentions of the species in botanical literature is by Dr. Paul Hermann in Paradisus Batavus in 1698. This Dutch scientist described a plant sent to him from the New World tropics for identification in 1689 as "Lilium americanum puniceo flore Bella Donna dictum" (the American lily with scarlet flowers called Belladonna).
In his plant classification treatise of 1700, Elments de botanique, French botanist, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort defined twenty-one species of bulbs with funnel-shaped flowers borne in umbel-shaped clusters at the top of a leafless stalk as Lilio-Narcissus. Carolus Linnaeus accepted de Tournefort's classification of the Lilio-Narcissus genus, first listing five species in Hortus Cliffortianus in 1737, then later encompassing nine in his 1753 Species Planatarum. Subsequently, Linnaeus, in creating the binomial system of plant classification-the system adhered to today by plant scientists throughout the world via the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature-eschewed hyphenated generic plant names. In homage to the beautiful nymph, Linnaeus renamed the group Amaryllis, the name that persists to this day.
The Honorable Reverend William Herbert, a British scientist and later dean of Manchester and a leading authority on the amaryllis of his era, segregated some amaryllis into a new genus, which he called Hippeastrum, publishing the name change in his book Amaryllidaceae in 1837. Today Hippeastrum (hip-ee-ay-strum) remains the correct genus name for cultivated amaryllis hybrids.
Etymologically, the name is a combination of hippos, Greek for horse, or hippeus, rider, and astron, star, which loosely translated means the horseman's star, sometimes elevated to the more aristocratic knight's star lily. It is easy to see the reason for "star," for in many open amaryllis flowers a distinct star, often stark white against pink, red, or orange, marks the petals and the shape of the flowers. With a little imagination, the flower bud in progressive stages of opening can suggest the head of a horse. Early sources say Hippeastrum puniceum (also known as H. equestre), one of the first species to arrive in Europe, had a reddish-purple inflorescence, which, particularly in its bud stage, was likened to the head of a horse. A reference in the English Botanical Magazine of 1795 declares that from particular angles, "The spatha is composed of two leaves, which standing up at a certain period of the plants [sic] flowering like ears give to the whole flower a fancied resemblance to a horse's head."
The horticultural public, however, has failed to embrace the new name, and Hippeastrum hybrids still retain the common name amaryllis. Today the genus-in the Amaryllidaceae family-includes over fifty species, from which hundreds of cultivars have been bred.
History is murky as to when the amaryllis was discovered in South America. The species hail from the Andes Mountains of Chile, Peru, and Bolivia as well as from Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela and as far north as Mexico and the West Indes. H. puniceum, H. reginae, H. striatum, H. reticulatum, and H. vittatum, probably in that order, were brought to Europe in the latter half of the seventeenth century, and additional species continued to be introduced as they were found. One account tells of Eduard Friedrich Poeppig, a young physician from Leipzig who journeyed to Peru on a plant hunting expedition in 1828 becoming so overcome with excitement at discovering the flower he yelled at the top of his voice in triumph. Amaryllis had certainly reached North America by 1811, when Thomas Jefferson wrote to Bernard McMahon, the pioneering Philadelphia seedsman, of enjoying the "fine tulips, hyacinths, tuberoses & Amaryllis you formerly sent me." An 1889 Young and Elliott's catalog, complete with enticing drawings, lists five varieties, both species and hybrid, for the American consumer.
Parental origins of the Hippeastrum hybrids are obscure because they have been subjected to centuries of intensive breeding. The scarlet-petaled H. reginae, a native of the Peruvian Andes, was cultivated commercially in the early eighteenth century. Many of the modern hybrids derive from the profuse-flowered Brazilian H. vittanum, which was crossed with H. reginae in 1799 by Arthur Johnson, an English clock- and watchmaker; hence the first hybrid-H. 3 johnsonii-and, incidentally, one of the most cold-hardy hybrids even today. This variety, also called St. Joseph's lily, has bright red tepals, or petal-like parts, each featuring a central white stripe.
Over the next century and a half, particularly as more South American species arrived in Europe, breeders created hundreds of hybrids. A leading firm in Bristol, England, was Garroway & Company, where in 1835 H. aulicum var. platypetalum was crossed with H. psittacinum to create a much larger, open-faced flower, the hybrid H. 3 acramannii. Dutch breeders E. H. Krelage & Son listed 350 varieties in their 1863 catalog. Nonprofessional gardeners such as Louis van Houtte of Belgium produced green-throated hybrids that were used to further advance hybridization.
Two strains-reginae and leopardii-dominated the next period of breeding. The colorful reginae strain was developed by Dutch breeder Jan de Graaff and his two sons in the middle of the nineteenth century. They crossed H. vittatum and H. striatum with H. psittacinum and then with some of the European hybrids to net flowers with an extended palette of color, though they are small by today's standards. In 1865, two new South American species, H. leopoldii and H. pardinum, were discovered by intrepid plant hunter Richard William Pearce (who unfortunately died in 1867 at the age of twenty-nine from yellow fever contracted while in Panama). H. leopoldii, with its rounded tepals bent back to form large flat blooms, offered new breeding material. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, growers, particularly the noteworthy James Veitch & Son of Chelsea, England, experimented with crossing H. leopardii and H. pardinum, a species with a minutely dotted flower, with some of the de Graaff hybrids, thereby creating immense open flowers with short tepal tubes.
Most hybrids cultivated at that time produced only two flowers; breeders next sought to achieve four to six flowers per umbel. A cross of the eight-inch H. leopoldii with the de Graaff 'Empress of India' produced the desired results of multiple flowers, as well as dynamically larger size. Another advance was the first pure white leopoldii hybrid, produced in 1904 by C. R. Fielder, an estate gardener in North Mimms Park, England. Hybridization with other strains-reginae, vittata, and reticulata-produced flowers that were smaller but had a range of brilliant color from pink to deep vermilion.
During the mid to late nineteenth century, American growers-from California to Florida, from Illinois to Texas-began experimenting, particularly with Hippeastrum 3 johnsonii and some of the vittata hybrids. H. Pfister, head gardener at the White House for thirty years, worked with the van Houtte strain, H. psittacinum, and leopoldii hybrids. He named a rosy-red clone 'Mrs. Cleveland' for the president's wife and immortalized the president's daughters with 'Ruth', 'Marion', and 'Esther'.
From the 1890s through the 1920s, Dr. Henry Nehrling of Florida established one of this country's finest collections, boasting both species and hybrids. Theodore L. Mead's strain of giant hybrids, also grown in Florida, were started from the Nehrling superior germ plasm. In the 1890s California too became a breeding center, beginning with a French nurseryman, George CompÃ¨re, who initially brought his stock from France. CompÃ¨re's efforts became the cornerstone for the work of the firm Howard & Smith in Montebello, where strains using CompÃ¨re's crosses and reginae and leopoldii hybrids were bred. Even Luther Burbank of Santa Rosa, California, famed for his experimental work developing fine strains of fruit, bred amaryllis. He worked primarily with H. johnsonii and its predecessor H. vittatum to produce flowers that reached ten inches in size.
This vast assortment of hybrids graced the great conservatories and greenhouses of the wealthy for a century and a half. However, the fuel shortages of the two world wars brought to a close the era of heated glass structures; since the amaryllis is a tender bulb, much of the previous era's hybridization also ceased. Breeders like the renowned houses of Robert P. Ker, of Liverpool, England, and James Vetch and Sons, were forced to discontinue their work during World War I.
In 1919, Plant Quarantine 37 restricted the importation of amaryllis into the United States to a limited number of disease-free bulbs for propagation stock, which severely curtailed American amaryllis hybridization. Work did not stop, however. Through selective breeding, using English clones, the United States Department of Agriculture developed a new strain that ranged in color from blush pink through the reds to white with red stripes. The department held annual shows for the public from 1912 through 1939 (except in 1914-15).
The American Amaryllis Society was established in 1933. In Herbertia, its newsletter, which he edited at the time, Arno H. Nehrling, son of Dr. Henry Nehrling, noted Americans' growing interest in amaryllis. At one of the Department of Agriculture shows in the late 1930s, a "marvelous collection" of 1,200 bulbs drew close to 40,000 people. Through the society seeds and bulbs were disseminated from the Department of Agriculture's holdings to breeders throughout the country. Other avid horticulturists, such as Pierre S. Du Pont, who bred fine reginae and leopoldii hybrids at his estate, Longwood, in Pennsylvania, and Robert van Tress, horticulturist at Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago and the creator of a vigorous red-orange strain, shared their results with other breeders.
Even in the midst of the Great Depression, economic belt-tightening did not extinguish America's love for plants. Dr. Hamilton P. Traub, one of the founders of the society and author of the comprehensive 1958 publication The Amaryllis Manual, wrote, "The number of persons interested in Amarylleae is undoubtedly great enough to support a thriving organization-not the largest but surely a high quality association." An important aspect of the society's activities was initiating the registry of new cultivars; in 1964 it published an updated, though not exhaustive, catalog of about 1,000 known hybrids. (The organization's seventy-five-year evolution has included name changes; currently it is the International Bulb Society, which reflects the membership's broader interest in "bulbous plants both rare and common.")
While hybridizing efforts flagged for several decades in the early and mid-twentieth century, it revived with gusto in the century's later years, particularly on the bulb farms of Holland. Traded through the great auction houses-the two largest being at Aalsmeer and Naaldwijk-or by contracts with growers, amaryllis are exported to various customers throughout the world. The Dutch, with innovative firms like G. C. van Meeuwen, Ludwig & Company, Kwekerij Den Oudendam, T. van Hermitage, and Penning Freesia, still lead the world in production for the bulb and cut flower markets. The flower industry is a backbone of the Netherlands' economy, bringing in over $3 billion a year. Bulbs are a substantial part of that market, with exports accounting for about three-quarters of a billion dollars, much of that coming from the United States, the world's leading bulb importer.
In Holland, commercially grown amaryllis, generally propagated from offsets or from twin-scaling, are primarily grown in large-scale greenhouse operations. Bulbs are planted from October to March and harvested by hand from July to October, when all their leaves are removed, chopped, and incorporated back in the planting beds. After harvesting, bulbs are quickly dried and cured. The old root system must remain viable.
The highly competitive flower industry is burgeoning in South Africa, and a number of American suppliers are increasingly dependent on that source for bulbs. Dutch bulb growers like Harry de Leeuw and Floor Barnhoorn, who migrated to South Africa in the 1940s, realized the virtues of H. reginae, which, while native to the Americas, had been introduced to Africa and was thriving there. A virus- and disease-resistant strain, it is easy to multiply from offsets; they began to cross it with their own hybrids to achieve new and spectacular flower colors. Since the 1970s the South African concentration has been on breeding cultivars with more scapes from smaller bulbs and larger flowers with extended life spans. Bulbs there are grown in outdoor fields; planting starts in July, and harvesting, all by hand, occurs in May.
While Holland and South Africa dominate in bulb production today, new hybrids are being developed in North America, Australia, Japan, India, Israel, and Brazil. Advancements being made in the United States are often the result of an individual breeder's efforts. For example, Charles "Dee" Cothran must be credited for 'Yellow Pioneer', a milestone in the quest for the elusive yellow amaryllis. (Sadly, by openly sharing with colleagues, Cothan forfeited the right to proper acknowledgment or remuneration once the hybrid reached the commercial market.) From his work in raising over 40,000 Hippeastrum seedlings, the late Frederick G. Meyer, a former executive director of the International Bulb Society, made seventy cultivar selections that are being propagated to satisfy the demands of the cut flower, dry bulb, and forcing markets.
In breeding a new Hippeastrum, criteria for judgment include: flower color; flower shape and form; vase life for the cut flower market; the number of days from planting to flowering; the number, height, and vigor of the scapes; the number of flowers per scape; and the bulb's root development and growth. In experimental programs breeders are trying crosses with existing hybrids and species Hippeastrum or other genera of the family Amaryllidaceae with desirable characteristics-disease resistance, fragrance, cold-hardiness, or the still elusive yellow, purple, and blue colors. Of the hundreds that breeders cross-pollinate yearly, only a handful of hybrids make the cut. An amaryllis generally needs to reach a circumference of 26 to 28 centimeters before it will bloom reliably; that takes two to four years. Then the labor-intensive process of bringing it to the commercial market begins, typically taking seven to nine years.
H. papilio, viewed as one of the most important twentieth-century introductions, is the focus of a breeding program run by Dr. Alan W. Meerow, which uses it as the primary species. Currently a research geneticist at the USDA's Subtropical Horticulture Research Station in Miami, Meerow has successfully introduced new cultivars that maintain the papilio characteristics of compact growth, evergreen foliage, and long-lasting flowers of unusual color range.
The United States Department of Agriculture imposes restrictions-standards based on regulations from the Agricultural Quality Act-on imported bulbs. All soil must be removed, and the bulbs must be washed and dried. Since that process shrinks the size of the bulbs slightly, the bulbs' measurements and resulting size classifications occur after the baths. Upon arrival in the States, bulbs are inspected by customs and shipped to the importers' warehouses. Disseminated to mail order suppliers, they are then sorted, packaged, and shipped to the consumer-a complex but efficient journey.
When an amaryllis bulb arrives at your door, artfully wrapped and ready to grow, it carries a rich heritage, tales of intrepid plant explorers and dedicated breeders, of gigantic commercial endeavors and of individuals' care. Charles Barnhoorn, of the South African bulb company Hadeco, which has introduced numerous cultivars, reports that during the harvesting period alone, each bulb will pass through nine different sets of hands.
When I look at the splendid, gaudy flower, I think, "It's all worth it."