I have been living with an imposter.
After seven years, it was a bit of a shock. I was betrayed by a bulb. Not just any bulb: I thought that this was the one the perfect mate that would bloom year after year with a long, lanky stem and a large stunning flower that never disappoints.
I don’t even know what to call this phony flower, except a disruption to my household.
When I received the bulb as a gift so many years ago the label called it an amaryllis, and thus so did I. It is a beautiful name that is both poetic and literary stemming from a Latin root meaning “to sparkle.” It was not until I sat down to write about this lovely plant that I found out the truth. The amaryllis that I had known and loved was not a true amaryllis at all. Rather, it was another species altogether called hippeastum.
Though hippeastum and amaryllis share common ancestry there are only two plant species within the genus amaryllis and hippeastum isn’t one of them. Hippeastum, actually, might be better off claiming its own identity and not being confused with a true amaryllis, which has a somewhat sordid and violent genesis.
The first Amaryllis was a virginal nymph, known to be shy but with a “spine of steel.” Amaryllis fell in love with an indifferent shepherd namedAlteo. Alteo was not interested in Amaryllis, though she promised lifelong love and loyalty to him. All Alteo wanted was a new flower, one that had never existed before. A challenging request, to say the least!
Amaryllis decided to prove her love and make the shepherd’s wish come true. She arrived at Alteo’s door dressed in maiden white and pierced her heart with a golden arrow over and over for 30 consecutive times, dripping red blood as she repeatedly stabbed herself. Alteo finally opened the door to find a white and crimson flower that had sprung from the blood streaming out of Amaryllis’s heart. Not a heartwarming story at all.
In a similarly negative vein, Victorian books defined the qualities of flowers called amaryllis as flowers exemplifying haughtiness and pride.
Hippeastum might be better served by embracing its own, though less pronounceable, name which has Greek roots meaning horse-rider and star. Together, the meaning of hippeastum is “horseman’s star.” Plants of this genus are not from this country and are native to the tropical and subtropical Americas.
Legend has it that a German physician found these magnificent flowers on a plant-hunting expedition in Peru in 1828. He was not the first Westerner to encounter the plants, though. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1811 that he enjoyed “fine tulips, hyacinths, tuberoses and amaryllis” sent to him by a Philadelphia seedsman.
It seems I am in good company since Jefferson and the German physician have also had hippeastum that they thought was amaryllis. Don’t expect a zebra to change its stripes, though, or a hippeastum to somehow become an amaryllis. The bulb bewilderment will continue and I will just have to get acquainted with the sudden stranger in my home.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.