They’re big, showy and more Christmassy than mulled wine and Morecambe and Wise. Here’s everything you need to know about Britain’s favourite festive flower, the red amaryllis…
A huge, shameless show-off – that’s the red amaryllis, which has overtaken the poinsettia as the festive flower par excellence. And why not? Christmas isn’t a time for subtlety: if you want your floral arrangement to stand out amidst the tinsel and glitter, you need something as astounding as the amaryllis.
They don’t just come in red, of course – and as one of the longest-lasting winter cut flowers around they’ll keep going much longer than the selection box your favourite aunt gives you every year. But no flower is Christmassier than the eye-popping, Santa-coat red varieties of amaryllis (well just take look at the beauties from one of our boxes above. They’re of the Red Lion variety, the best Christmas red amaryllis you can get, and you can practically hear Bing Crosby crooning away in the background).
And whether dazzling on the dinner table or illuminating the hallway, they make wonderful conversation starters with Christmas party guests. So if you need to drop a few impressive flower factoids into your chat, here’s Freddie’s guide to amaryllis…
The Name Game
Amaryllis belladonna by an unknown artist c.1828. © RHS. Credit: RHS, Lindley Library
Scientifically speaking, a true ‘amaryllis’ is a genus of South African plants of which the best known is the (usually pink) Amaryllis belladonna.
But in one of those incredibly confusing naming controversies that happen all the time in botany, most of the plants commonly called ‘amaryllis’ – including our Red Lions – are from a South American genus which contains about 90 species and hundreds of varieties, and which was reclassified by the Revered William Herbert in 1820 under the name Hippeastrum, meaning ‘Mounted Knight’s Star Lily’ (which wasn’t at all helpful since they aren’t lilies. And there are already plenty of flowers called ‘lilies’ that aren’t lilies).
An Amaryllis reclassified as a Hippeastrum – unknown c. 1790-1820. © RHS. Credit: RHS, Lindley Library
But never mind about all that – if it looks like an amaryllis and everyone calls it an ‘amaryllis’, then for all practical purposes, it’s an amaryllis, even if it’s a Hippeastrum.
And the name ‘amaryllis’ really does have an interesting backstory…
The Extremely Determined Shepherdess
William Holman Hunt – Amaryllis (1884). Public domain.
Like all the best flower names, ‘amaryllis’ comes from the Greek (meaning ‘to sparkle’) and has a terrific mythological tale behind it.
As told by Virgil, there was once a beautiful shepherdess called Amarylis who fell hopelessly in love with a shepherd called Alteo.
Alteo had the looks of Apollo, the strength of Hercules and a keen interest in flowers (much like Freddie all round, then). But he was absurdly picky about his shepherdesses, so after Amarylis had chased him around the mountainside for a while he announced that the only way he could ever love her was if she brought him a new flower that he’d never seen before.
Since Alteo was a proper flower expert this proved frustratingly difficult but, undeterred, Amarylis went to consult the Oracle at Delphi, who told her that she would have to sacrifice her blood to win her man. Naturally, the shepherdess decided that the best way to do this would be to stand outside Alteo’s door and pierce her own heart with a golden arrow every day for a month.
A long shot, but it paid off – and on the occasion of the thirtieth stabbing a magnificent, tall and crimson flower grew from the blood spots on the path. And so Alteo got the bloom he’d never seen before, Amarylis got her man, and we got our favourite Christmas flower.
So although amaryllis (and indeed Hippeastrum) flowers do come in many colours, including white, orange, yellow-green and even salmon, you can tell your party guests that not only is red the Christmassiest colour, it’s also the real amaryllis colour… being the exact colour of shepherdess blood. That should help break the ice. And possibly even warm the cockles. Merry Christmas!
Piet Mondrian – Amaryllis (1910). Public domain.