The Amaryllis (Hippeastrum), a seasonal bloomer that does best in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 8 to 10, has a decidedly Greek name. The flower was discovered in the early 18th century. By the mid 1700s the hybridization process was in full swing, resulting in the showy flowers on the market today.
Origin of the Names
The poet Virgil used the name Amaryllis to describe a shepherdess in an ancient Greek poem. The name was soon attached to the original flower, Amaryllis belladonna. The Latin word "amaryso" means to sparkle. The name "Hippeastrum" means "horse star," which is another apt description of the star-shaped, showy flowers.
Today, plants in the Hippeastrum family that are called amaryllis are hybrids of the true Amaryllis belladonna. The latter flower is sometimes found in gardens, but it is referred to as the belladonna lily or the naked lily. Over time, the name switch was made by growers and sellers. The two plants look much alike, with the main difference seen in the flower stems. On the belladonna lily, the stems are solid, while those in the Hippeastrum genus have hollow stems.
The group Hippeastrum has roughly 75 species of flowers that are called amaryllis. The blooms can be solid reds and pinks, or whites with multi-colored spots and bands. These are bulb plants that like full sun to partial shade and well-drained, organically rich soils. Plants are usually started indoors in early spring and then moved outdoors by late spring, but that timing can vary with the climate. Each bulb sprouts one long flowering stem, usually 12 to 18 inches tall. At the top, 2 to 6 flowers bloom. The long, rather thin leaves start growing after the flowers begin to open.
In many parts of the United States, amaryllis is typically grown as a houseplant. One exception is Florida, where tropical plants tend to do well. They are often grown in clumps, sometimes as an accent for evergreen shrubs. The contrast of the bright flowers does wonders for curb appeal. Amaryllis is also found on terraces, in borders or framing an entryway, either as a group planting or single plants.
The Christmas Flower
Amaryllis flowers are often a cherished Christmas tradition. The bulbs are planted around Thanksgiving, towards the end of November. By Christmas, the flowers are ready to bloom. Arriving at a friend's house with this colorful potted flower is a lovely gesture. For the avid gardener, showing up with a giant amaryllis bulb and all the planting fixings, available at most gardening shops this time of year, is even better.