We are fascinated with the wonderful genus zephyranthes (rain lilies). Zephyranthes are unobtrusive, summer-flowering bulbs that can fit in any garden, with a flower color ranging from yellow to white to pink. The great thing about zephyranthes is the lack of large foliage that often accompanies many other spring-flowering bulbs, so site them in the front of the border, or in a rock garden to be best appreciated.
Zephyranthes are one of our specialty collections at Juniper Level Botanic Garden, with 25 species and 257 unique clones. Here are a few of the zephyranthes blooming this morning in our alpine berm. You can view our entire zephyranthes photo gallery here.
This is one of the rare summers we actually got flowers on Amaryllis belladonna in the gardens at JLBG. The only problem is that they aren’t really Amaryllis belladonna. This poor South African native has suffered a series of nomenclatural mix ups over the last 250 years, that sadly continues today.
First was the battle over which plant really belongs to the genus name, amaryllis. The mix-up started with the grandfather of modern taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, when he published the genus name Amaryllis in 1753. In his initial publication, Linnaeus applied the name amaryllis to a group of plants, which later turned out to include at least five different genera; amaryllis, nerine, zephyranthes, sprekelia, and sternbergia. A few years later in 1819, botanist William Herbert and others tried to clean up the mess using Linnaeus’s notes, and in doing so, assigned the genus name amaryllis to the solitary South African species, Amaryllis belladonna, which had been in Western cultivation since 1633.
Fast forward 119 years to 1938, when taxonomist Cornelius Uphof upset the proverbial apple cart when he published a paper in which he declared that the assignment of the name amaryllis for the South Aftrican plant was against Linnaeus’s wishes, since it was clear to Uphof that Linnaeus intended the genus Amaryllis to be applied to the American genus, Hippeastrum. Uphof’s paper renamed the American genus Hippeastrum to Amaryllis and the South African Amaryllis belladonna became Callicore rosea. This caused quite a taxonomic uproar which would continue for another 50 years.
The following year, 1939, taxonomist Joseph Sealy dug deeper into the original amaryllis name mix-up, and found it impossible to determine which plant Linnaeus intended to bestow with the genus name, Amaryllis, since most of Linnaeus’s original description referenced the South African plant, and only one small part referenced the American plant. Consequently, Sealy left the name amaryllis to apply to the solitary Amaryllis belladonna, and not to the much larger genus Hippeastrum.
The battle was far from over, and in fact, it turned into a war, led by American taxonomist Dr. Hamilton Traub, who from 1949 until his death in 1983, was defiant that the genus name amaryllis should instead apply to the American hippeastrums. Finally, in 1987, after Traub’s death, the International Botanical Congress confirmed the assignment of the name amaryllis to the South African species. Despite this resolution to 250 years of wrangling, most gardeners still refer to the plants that they grow widely in homes and gardens for their large flowers as amaryllis and not the proper name, hippeastrum.
One would hope that the 1987 decision would be the end of the mess, but not so fast…there was yet another taxonomic snafu. Amaryllis belladonna is a plant which is widely grown throughout California, where it thrives and flowers annually. But, is it really Amaryllis belladonna? While it’s certainly not a hippeastrum, the answer is no. To solve this mix-up, let’s step back a few years, to 1841, when Australian plantsman John Bidwill, first crossed Amaryllis belladonna with another African relative, brunsvigia, creating a bi-generic hybrid that would become known as x Amargyia parkeri. Because x Amargyia parkeri had more flowers, a more radial flower head, and better vigor, it gradually replaced true Amaryllis belladonna in cultivation, especially in California. I chatted with Californian Bill Welch (Bill the Bulb Baron), the largest grower/breeder of Amaryllis belladonna, prior to his untimely death in 2019. Bill admitted that everything he grew and sold as Amaryllis belladonna was actually the hybrid x Amargyia parkeri. Nurserymen have a bad habit of using incorrect names, because they realize that names which are familiar to customers always sell better.
If that’s not confusing enough, we should add that about half of the people who grow Lycoris x squamigera, a Zone 4 hardy bulb, also have their plants also labeled as Amaryllis belladonna, which is only winter hardy from Zone 8 south. We can thank several large mail order bulb catalogs who have no interest in either correct nomenclature or correct photography for that fiasco.
To quote the late Paul Harvey, “And now you know the rest of the story.”
So, do you see why plant taxonomist generally have little hair remaining?
Flowering today at JLBG is Crinum ‘Walter Flory’…not only a superb crinum, but one named after one of NC’s pre-eminent botanists. Dr. Walter Flory (1907-1998) was a botany professor at Wake Forest University.
Dr. Flory received his PhD in 1931 from the University of Virginia for his work with both edible asparagus and phlox. From 1936 – 1944 (during WWII), Flory was a horticulturist for the Texas Experiment Station, where he bred a number of crops for the southern climate. It was here that Flory developed what would become a lifelong passion for members of the Amaryllis family. After eight years in Texas, Flory returned to his native Virginia, where he continued to climb the academic ladder, culminating in being named Director of the 700-acre Blandy Experimental Farm, which included the 130-acre Orlando White Arboretum. In this position, Flory was able to have graduate students carry on his research in the Amaryllid family.
In 1952, Flory made his first botanizing trip to Mexico, focusing on hymenocallis, zephyranthes, and sprekelia. Follow-up trips became more frequent and Flory regularly botanized both the Texas and Mexican sides of the US border. In short, Flory’s study and research into members of the Amaryllid family has greatly increased our understanding of this amazing group.
In 1963, after some significant arm-twisting, Flory accepted a new position as the Babcock Chair of Botany at Wake Forest University. There, he developed the first non-medical doctoral program at the University. With his reduced teaching load, and ability to travel worldwide for research and botanizing, Flory was able to publish much more amaryllid research.
The crinum below, which bears his name, was named and introduced by his good friend, plantswoman/nursery owner, Kitty Clint. What a shame that after offering this amazing crinum for a decade we only had a few people who every purchased it. At least, you now know what the late Paul Harvey called, “the rest of the story.”
Since we don’t have an open house in June, I wanted to share photos of Ammocharis corranica in flower now. This easy-to-grow amaryllid has thrived in the gardens at JLBG since 2004. First cousin to the better known genera like amaryllis, crinum, and lycoris, the South African ammocharis makes a very short, but incredibly showy bulb for a sunny garden spot.
Hymen flowers (aka Hymenocallis) are still going, as the Northern Mexican species now perfume the garden. The genus begins flowering in spring, and if you grow a wide range of species, you can have flowers until late summer/early fall. Here’s a photo we recently took of Hymenocallis pimana in the garden. While many hymenocallis prefer very moist soils, we grow this in a dry bed with agaves and cactus. Starting in early evening, the flowers emit a honeysuckle-like fragrant to lure evening moths for reproductive activities. While we also like the more commonly sold Dutch hybrids, which are actually intergeneric crosses with the South American Ismene, we think the North American native species are far superior as garden plants, so we’ve always wondered why these don’t sell nearly as well as they should.