The Case of The Beautiful Imposter

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?

Celebrating Ferners

One of the fabulous ferns in our garden during the summer months is the sun-tolerant Dennstaedtia hirsuta ‘Sohuksan’. This fabulous specimen came to the US from a 1985 collection from Sohuksan Island, South Korea, where it was discovered by a team of intrepid plant explorers that included horticultural legends as Barry Yinger, the late Ted Dudley, the late J.C. Raulston, the late Peter Wharton, Young-june Chang and Kun-so Kim. The group had left the mainland for the several day ferry ride to this remote island, landing just ahead of a typhoon, which resulted in severe injuries disembarking from the ferry. After riding out the typhoon in minimal shelters, they awoke to a treasure trove of amazing plants. We are so glad to keep the memory of this amazing trip alive in gardens with some of their great plant introductions.

Alan’s Laosy Giant

The late plantsman Alan Galloway was a prolific plant collector in Southeastern Asia, and one of the plants that has surprised us with its winter hardiness is the giant evergreen Solomon’s Seal, Disporopsis longifolia. In the wild, Alan and I encountered this throughout Thailand and Vietnam, but our tallest clone is one which Alan collected in Laos, and we christened Disporopsis longifolia ‘Alan’s Laosy Giant’. Our clump, which has been in the garden since 2007 has topped 5′ in height and is in full flower this week. Sadly, it has yet to produce a single offset.

Gold Farkle

One of our treasured finds from a recent botanizing trip in East Texas with plantsmen Adam Black and Wade Roitsch (Yucca Do), was a gold-foliaged Vaccinium arboreum (farkleberry). The parent plant was 30-40′ tall, but there were plenty of root suckers from a recent road grading. This could turn out to be a wonderfully exciting new native edimental.

Rude Croatian

One of the gems from our 2012 botanizing trip to the Balkans, was a growable selection of Paris quadrifolia. For those who haven’t mastered Latin, quadrifolia means 4-leaves. All cultivated forms of this widespread European trillium relative had failed to thrive in our hot humid summers. Our collection from the Croatian town of Rude (I’m not making this up), has thrived, forming a lovely patch and even flowering. Hopefully, one day in the future, we’ll have enough to share.

Who is Walter Flory?

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.”

Supersize & Vulgar

Just flowering at JLBG is our largest clone of the hardy aroid, Dracunculus vulgaris, that we named ‘Supersize’. This one produced a massive 30″ inflorescence. A typical length is 15-20″. We’d be curious is anyone has grown one any larger. As you can imagine, it was quite a feast for the pollinating flies.

Dracunculus vulgaris ‘Supersize’
Dracunculus vulgaris ‘Supersize’
Dracunculus vulgaris ‘Supersize’

A Blues Star

Just snapped this photo of the amazing Amsonia ‘Storm Cloud’ in the garden. This was a 2011 discovery in Central Alabama on a botanizing trip with Hans Hansen.

Amsonia tabernaemontana ‘Storm Cloud’