For devoted Canadian gardeners, January is the darkest month of the year: the holiday season is over and the decorations have been packed away for another year taking with them all their garden-like qualities of colour and light. Now there’s no escaping the fact that there won’t be any soil to sink our hands into until spring. But don’t despair, there’s one flower that has the power to brighten even the darkest January day: the amaryllis.
If there is a flower that could be labeled ‘idiot proof’, this is it. This bulb will bloom almost in spite of us, shooting up stalks that will grow inches a day to reach a foot and a half tall, topped by half a dozen blooms as large as nine inches across each. One variety, nicknamed ‘naked ladies’, is so zealous, it doesn’t even waste growth energy in producing leaves, only bare stalks to support its spectacular flowers.
Needless to say, a flower this dynamic has a colourful past, beginning with its name. It is, like so many flowers, named after a Greek myth, and like most Greek myths about the origins of flowers, it’s a story about blood spilt into the earth in an excess of passion. In this case the shepherd girl, Amaryllis, fell in love with the haughty and disdainful Alteo. Alteo’s great desire was to be given a new flower, one that had never been seen in the world before. Dedicated to winning his love, Amaryllis consulted the Oracle at Delphi who told her to pierce her heart with a golden arrow at Alteo’s door. For thirty nights she followed these instructions, until, finally, where her blood dripped, large, spectacular crimson flowers sprang up and she won Alteo’s heart.
This link in legend between flowers, passion, blood and the earth is common in many cultures. As one ethnobotanist puts it; "flowers are used throughout our social life, for decoration, for medicine, in cooking and for their scents, but above all in establishing, maintaining and even ending relationships, with the dead as with the living, with divinities as well as humans."
One of the most complex examples of our social bond with flowers is the ‘language of flowers’ used by 19th century courting couples to communicate with each other. In England, an amaryllis given to a woman meant ‘great feminine beauty,’ but given to a man it meant ‘excessive pride.’ In France the language of love was (predictably?) subtler: a pink amaryllis meant ‘you are too flirtatious’, while a red one said ‘you are too sought after.’
And finally, one of the most delightful plant hunting anecdotes is the story of Eduard Poeppig’s discovery of the amaryllis on an expedition in Chile in 1828. He found the flowers in full bloom on the side of a mountain and collected the bulbs in a flurry of excitement. As he descended the mountain with his prize his jubilation with his discovery was so great that, as his biographer recorded it, he was "often compelled to relieve his full heart by uttering loud shouts of joy, to which his faithful dog and sole companion and witness of his delight responded with howls of equal delight."