Hippeastrum 'fairytale', diamond group of Amaryllis, flowering bulbs

Hippeastrum or Amaryllis? Christmas Flowering Bulbs

Botanical Latin scholars among you may be aware why the flowering bulb we have in our houses at Christmas is known both as Amaryllis and Hippeastrum. There will be many more of you who may be aware that two names are used and not really care, except to wonder if they’ve pronounced and spelt ‘Hippeastrum’ correctly!

But I thought it might be interesting to look at some of the quirks surrounding botanical taxonomy – that’s the naming of flowers and plants. A reason for you to sit down for five minutes with a cup of tea and relax, and still have the excuse that you’re doing something towards Christmas preparation as I’ll add a few tips in too.

A quick note – if you follow the links on ‘confusing terms’ such as genus, you’ll be taken to our Gardening Glossary for a brief explanation.

The Swedish botanist Linnaeus in the eighteenth century developed the binomial system of plant naming which brought some order to what had previously been a bit of a free for all in the plant world.

Round about 1753, in his Species Plantarum, Linnaeus created the name Amaryllis belladonna. Now, the key question ever since has been whether this particular plant hailed from South Africa or South America, as there are important differences as well as many similarities between these two plant species.

Hippeastrum flowers in bud, top view, amaryllis, flowering bulb

Hippeastrum or Amaryllis?

Both Amaryllis and Hippeastrum are, generally speaking, tender bulbs and plants, unsuited to the cold of a British, Northern European or North American winter. The nineteenth century with its invention of industrial processes allowed for larger panes of glass to be made. This in turn led to many more plant enthusiasts, particularly the urban middle classes, being able to afford glasshouses, which previously had been astronomically expensive.

And so exotic plant species were both introduced and grown in these cooler, wealthy countries. New species and cultivars were also developed. For example, Liverpool was a centre for the introduction and breeding of exotic plants in the early nineteenth century, including the flowering Christmas bulbs we’re discussing. Mrs Bury’s Selection of Hexandrian Plants (1831–1833) provides a record of varieties of Hippeastrum which have since vanished.

The English botanist William Herbert was a member of the Horticultural Society of London (which later became the Royal Horticultural Society, or RHS). He was interested in the classification of plant species. In 1837 he published his botanical arrangements of the Amaryllidiaceae. This is the family to which Amaryllis and Hippeastrum flowers belong. Also included in the family Amaryllidiaceae are Snowdrops (Galanthus), Daffodils (Narcissus) and Nerines.

Hippeastrum 'papillo', amaryllis

It was also Herbert who named the Hippeastrum. The resemblance of the flower shape to the medieval weapon, the knights’ star or hippeus (knight) astron (star).

Despite this, confusion still reigned in the plant world as to which was the ‘true’ Amaryllis flower. It wasn’t until the 14th International Botanical Congress in 1987 that the question of the scientific name of the genus was resolved. To put it simply, the true Amaryllis is a bulb from South Africa with only one species in the genus (Amaryllis belladonna). Whilst Hippeastrums are from Central and South America with 90 species and over 600 cultivars in the genus.

Although the 1987 decision settled the question of the scientific name of the genus, the common name “amaryllis” continues to be used by plant nurseries, gardeners and the general public.

So the flowering bulbs sold as Amaryllis and described as ready to bloom for the holidays belong to the genus Hippeastrum. Although, to further confuse the issue, these flowers are often hybrids, the result of commercial hybridisation between South American and South African plants…

 

Hippeastrum bulb roots, amaryllis, flowering bulb

Hippeastrum – a Warning

The alkaloids in this bulb will cause trembling and vomiting if eaten. However, large quantities of the bulb would need to be eaten to cause these symptoms. It has a bitter taste, so it’s unlikely that many people or animals would willingly eat enough to cause much damage.

A few tips on keeping your Hippeastrum or Amaryllis looking good

  • To have them flower at Christmas, you would need to have planted them in October. They take about 8 weeks to reach flowering.
  • However, you can enjoy Hippeastrums at Valentine’s Day by planting the bulbs now.
  • Remember that these are tropical plants and a cold spell will stop them in their tracks.
  • Hippeastrums require bright light during the active growth period indoors. Spindly, floppy leaves are a symptom that the light is not strong enough.
  • A tomato based feed is good to keep the bulb healthy and the Hippeastrum flowers blooming
  • These bulbs are perennials not annuals. It is possible to keep Hippeastrums for many years. After flowering, let the foliage die back. Put in a dark place to encourage dormancy. Re-growth is encouraged later in the year.

 

hippeastrum, fading flower, amaryllis, flowering bulb

Question –

Would you prefer a growing plant or a dying plant in your house over the festive season that celebrates birth?

There are Hippeastrum and Amaryllis bulbs being sold which have been glitzed up for Christmas with sparkly spray. These bulbs will flower – that’s because they are desperately trying to reproduce themselves before dying. The bulbs are treated and have had their roots and growth plate removed. So no wonder they don’t need watering!

In my opinion – keep well away. It’s a purely commercial venture to part you from your money. I am actually surprised at some of the otherwise reputable garden centre companies who sell them.

 

For most of us it is the fact that these large bulbs produce enormous, showy blooms that makes them worth growing. Whether you encourage them to flower indoors for Christmas, or, my personal preference, in January after all the decorations have been taken down and the house looks bare, they are definitely showstoppers.

So let’s raise a mulled wine toast to the beautiful, stunning addition to our homes this festive season. The living flowering Hippeastrum…or Amaryllis

If you would like to know about potentially poisonous plants in your own garden, ask about our Garden Consultancy services.

And for those of you who like Christmas – why not download our eBook “Christmas and Yule in Your Garden“?

Or if you’re looking for a Christmas gift with a difference, why not ask about our bespoke Gardening Lessons, where your classroom is actually your own garden? We can help with both gardening basics and more ‘expert tasks’, carry out worm and other experiments and for example, also show you how to plan a wildlife friendly ornamental border.

For further gardening advice and inspiration, check out Plews Potting Shed blogs, including the selection below and our monthly Tipsheet  – You could come and find us on Instagram  Pinterest and Facebook too.

Related Gardening articles you may enjoy from our Award Winning Blog

Forcing bulbs for Christmas flowers
Six poisonous flowering bulbs
Could You Grow Your Own Christmas Pudding? 
Christmas Plants – some questions and answers

 

Hippeastrum 'dancing queen', Amaryllis, flowering bulbs