Hippeastrum papilio (Ravenna) Van Scheepen is an endangered epiphytic amaryllis that, paradoxically, is increasingly propagated among gardeners while its natural range is degraded and diminished. Papilio is native to tropical forests of the Atlantic Coast of southern Brazil and was first scientifically collected only in the late 1960s. In the next decades, plant breeders in Holland and the United States began to develop unique hybrids that express papilio's resistance to Hippeastrum mosaic virus.
In 1967, H. papilio was discovered in a garden in Santa Catarina state, southern Brazil, by Dr. Carlos A. Gomez Rupple, an Argentine collector. The species was published as Amaryllis papilio by Argentine botanist Pedro Felix Ravenna (Pierfelice Ravenna) in 1970. In 1997, Van Scheepen separated New World amarylloids (Amaryllidaceae) from African true amaryllis and assigned the genus name Hippeastrum to American species. Papilio was considered extinct in its natural habitat until the 1990s, when an Escondido, California plant breeder, Fred Meyer, observed it growing in tall trees in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul.
Loss of Habitat
Hippeastrum papilio survives as a population of 50 plants within a 4-square-mile patch of Atlantic Forest habitat fragmented by roads and drains. These survivors are representatives of larger species and genus distribution. The forest's original 476,000 square miles was reduced to only 38,600 square miles, first by sugarcane and coffee plantations and later by urbanization. The original forest was about the size of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida combined. The remaining forest is smaller than Mississippi.
In Brazil, papilio blooms in October, the southern hemisphere spring, but in cultivation in the United States and Europe, papilio may bloom at any time in late winter to early spring. The flowers will readily set seeds, but will not self-pollinate. The plant also multiplies by producing off-shoots of bulbs. Papilio is among the most vigorous of the Hippeastrum, with rapidly growing seedlings, making it an excellent parent for hybrids. However, some cross-pollination with existing hybrids sets seeds that grow vigorously at first, but abort after 28 days due to chromosome incompatibility.
Among the 60 known Hippeastrum, many cultivated species can each be traced to only a few plants that were collected and propagated. Thus, commercial Hippeastrum producers risk loss to diseases, because only about 10% of Hippeastrum genomic diversity is present in existing cultivars. Papilio is an evergreen that does not display any symptoms of infection by Hippeastrum mosaic virus. Thus far, its hybrid offspring express a wide range of levels of resistance to mosaic virus.
Start bulbs indoors in a west facing window. Plant in moist, loose, well-drained organic soil to simulate the plant's epiphytic habit. Move pots outdoors in spring. Leaves reach 20 inches in height. Papilio flowers the second year, and large well-established bulbs will produce up to three stems of two flowers each. Repot if bulb becomes cramped. Papilio is hardy to USDA zone 9, but should overwinter indoors, without dormancy.