The amaryllis—elegant, tropical, and breathtakingly beautiful—is the most majestic of all the flowering bulbs. Its distinctive look, long-lasting blooms, and ease of cultivation have made it a favorite of plant lovers and a fixture in their homes around the world throughout the winter months. Now, award-winning photographer Starr Ockenga brings us Amaryllis, a comprehensive exploration of the beauty, history, and cultivation of this singular flower.
A unique photographic record of a diverse and alluring plant, Amaryllis is a document of the season that Ockenga spent growing more than ninety varieties in her upstate New York greenhouse. From the papery surface of the bulb to glorious flower to spent bloom, Ockenga’s remarkable photographs capture all the sensuality and drama of the amaryllis. Her images demonstrate the flower’s extraordinary range of color and form, from the iridescent velvety-red ‘Basuto’ to the brilliantly striped ‘Jaguar’ and the awkward grace of ‘Giraffe’s’ long stem and delicate flower.
More than a collection of stunning flower portraits, Amaryllis offers practical wisdom on growing these plants. Gardeners will appreciate Ockenga’s expert insights on storage, propagation, and hybridization, and new plant enthusiasts will learn how simple it is to grow amaryllis from the bulb or to display its cut flowers. With fascinating information on the historical background of the amaryllis, details on its horticultural requirements, and an illustrated glossary of almost 100 varieties, Amaryllis is the authoritative guide to the queen of flowering bulbs.
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Starr Ockenga won national acclaim for her first book on gardens, Earth on Her Hands: The Amerian Woman in Her Garden, which received an American Horticultural Society Book Award for 1999. She continued to document American gardens with Eden on Their Minds: American Gardeners with Bold Visions, published in 2001. Her work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Horticulture and Country Home. She received her master’s degree in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design and has been granted fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation. Her photographs have been exhibited in museums and galleries across the United States and abroad. Formerly an associate professor of photography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she now divides her time between a studio in New York City and her garden in the Hudson River Valley.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 bl...
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