Big, Brazen and Bawdy

– Posted in: Bulbs

Written by Tovah Martin

The deliveryman was just being gallant, I’m sure. When he offered to bring the box of books in out of the snow, he probably assumed he’d toss it into your typical vestibule and be done with it. Sign here. In fact, he was hoping to summarily dump it into one of those cavernous entryways with enough room to hold a town meeting (in a small town, no pressing new business). But a few steps in, he regretted his valiance. Chivalry suddenly entailed wedging between the oddball sedum showering its succulent leaves down to the ground. It meant beating back the cissus groping tendrils at his clipboard. It could only accomplished after sidestepping the sacrificial fescue shedding mangled grass tufts on the floor after the kitten slowly tortured it into submission. He was feeling deeply out of his element. Then he caught glimpse of the amaryllis. And he breathed an audible sigh of relief. This lady is just this side of normal, he figured.


I come from a background of plant snobs. The greenhouse where I got my training in horticulture didn’t truck with anything that wasn’t nearly impossible to find. We didn’t do “normal.” We grew stuff like Lapageria rosea, a plant that could only be had from seed fermented for a few months. They would have nothing to do with pansies. Frowned on fritillarias and such. So there I was. A sucker for the first amaryllis to cross my path.

Okay, here’s the quiz = Can you remember your first snowdrop? Thought not. Can you recall the first time you encountered a puschkinia? Doubt it. Come to think of it, can you give a detailed blow by blow of your initial interaction with any plant? But how about the first amaryllis you encountered? Now, that’s a different story.

My first kiss was unremarkable, apparently, because it’s lost in the cobwebs of my checkered history. Ditto for my first date (sorry, wherever you are). But with sharp clarity, with all the attendant sound effects (fluttering of heart, gasping of breath, weakness in knees, pulse pounding) I can pull up the scene when an amaryllis first came into my life. Now, just to set the record straight, I’m talking about hippeastrum here. The real amaryllis, Amaryllis belladonna, was certainly of sufficient connoisseur-quality for the gang back at the greenhouse. I knew Amaryllis belladonna (snore). But somehow, I managed to go through most of my formative years and arrive nearly at adulthood without encountering a hippeastrum.

‘Magic Green’

That changed the day I was sent to pick up milk at the farm down the street. Close your eyes and you can pull up the scene – booby trapped porch, a labyrinth of farmer’s almanacs and farm journals stacked precariously in the path to the kitchen, farmer sunk deep into an overstuffed chair (awake? asleep? alive?), 14 cats wrapping their tails around your ankles, squinting (real Yankees don’t venture higher than 40 watts) at hollowed-out dyed egg ornaments daggling from the Christmas tree (this was a couple who labored endlessly to harness their surplus eggs). And the farmer’s wife (don’t worry, I know her name, but I’m not telling) leading the way (trust me, you needed a guide) into the dining room, sparkling white damask table cloth laid out. And there –in the middle of the table, exhibited with all due reverence and awe – was a fire whistle of a flower. It could have been a satellite dish of a flower, but that would be an anachronism. Actually, it was several flowers balanced atop a plump stem all facing different directions with their mouths gaping open as if aghast. It was big bang. It was torridly colored deep red. Its sexual apparatus was full frontal. It was a tart in the floral kingdom. It was almost obscene. And more than anything in the world, I wanted one. I wanted more than one. I wanted them all.


So that’s my story. That explains, in a nutshell, where I am right now. A fugitive from Snobsville. So there. Go ahead – Snicker. There is no challenge involved with an amaryllis. No PhD (potting house degree) necessary. Plunk them into the soil and you’re going to get blossoms. Basically, you’re home free the moment the package saying “Keep from Freezing/Open Immediately” arrives on the doorstep. Common sense tells you that the soil should be sufficiently heavy to balance out the bulk of those plus-sized flowers. No staking (I hate staking – looks like the plant is being lashed for impending torture). Your furnace repairman could grow one, for gosh sake. He might not be able to keep an amaryllis going year after year (put it outside in summer, treat it royally, bring it in late summer and put it into dormancy, wake it up after you clear Thanksgiving). But he could have one very good winter.

Sure, you could dabble in the newer varieties – get ahead of the Joneses that way. But in the end, you’ll just have a better color, or a more intriguing shape, or smarter streaking on the same insufferably easy plant.


Okay, now here’s where you come in. I’d love to hear your favorites. Tell us which bloomed best for you. Complain about ‘Evergreen’ (small, green, what was I thinking)? Boast about ‘Zombie’ (kerthud, kerthud, kerthud). Tell all.

Meanwhile, back to my house. A few months ago, I got a kitten. That would be Einstein. At first, everything went into the Mad Purrfessor’s mouth (including some rare orchids, but that’s another story). Amaryllis is in the Liliaceae, after all (does anyone know if hippeastrums are actually poisonous to cats?). I thought that amaryllis and I would have to part company. I planned the tearful farewell, I bought Kleenex. But I couldn’t find homes for all the refugees (we’re talking a few dozen pots here). Meanwhile (I mean while I was walking around the neighborhood knocking on doors toting fat dormant bulbs, asking for visitation rights), the kitten grew out of ingestion and moved smoothly into shredding instead. Einstein and the amaryllis live happily ever after. End of story. Now go to bed.

Einstein with ‘Baby Doll’
Fran Sorin

Fran is the author of the highly-acclaimed book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, which Andrew Weil, M.D., recommends as "a profound and inspiring book."  

A graduate of the University of Chicago with Honors in Psychology, she is also a gardening and creativity expert, coach, inspirational speaker, CBS radio news gardening correspondent, and Huffington Post Contributor.

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Fran Sorin
11 comments… add one

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Elephant's Eye February 8, 2011, 3:39 pm

Just a few more weeks, and we’ll have our snoring belladonnas ;¬)

I take it back, I apologize. Our A. belladonna never came within a lick of looking like yours in South Africa. When’s the next flight?

Carolyn @ Carolyn's Shade Gardens February 8, 2011, 6:14 pm

Sorry, I remember my first snowdrop. I am a dyed-in-the-wool galanthophile. Amaryllis do nothing for me, but I appreciate that other people like them.

Now wait a minute, Carolyn, you can’t get away with a tease like “I remember my first snowdrops…” without telling us a story. And to tell you the truth, I eventually fell for snowdrops also. I’ll tell you that tale later. You first, though…

Saxon February 8, 2011, 9:16 pm

Love your writing and can understand that you (especially) could like something so big, brazen and bawdy, but ummm I never liked them myself. Can’t contribute a favorite. Just too big and brazen for me. Don’t mind the bawdy…

I admit it, Saxon, I’m a pushover – especially in February with 3 feet of snow on the ground. I’ve practically been kissing my amaryllis on the lips. But if discrete is your bag, what you need is ‘Evergreen’…

David Perry February 8, 2011, 10:54 pm

You rocked me . . .

No, you’re the avalanche, David.

Michelle D February 9, 2011, 1:21 am

Not so much of a plant snob than as a design snob, and with that confession out in the open I’ll say that seeing a single Amarylis , no matter how brazen or bawdy just doesn’t do it for me.
Now if you should show me a bountiful swath of Amarylis, even if they should be A. belladona, then I would be sufficiently impressed.
~ enjoyable essay !

I wish, Michelle. Go ahead, flaunt your West Coast climate. Dangle images of amaryllis chorus lines in front of our eyes. A nun friend of mine tells me that she still gets visions of kick lines of margaritas dancing in front of her eyes in midsummer.

Donna B. February 9, 2011, 9:40 am

Tovah, I looooove your posts. Seriously. They bring such sunshine to these dreary winter days…
I have an Amarylis, of unknown coloration, springing forth it’s 2ft high reach for the skies… I seriously can’t wait. UGH.
Strange question, seeing your “Baby Doll” with Einstein… my Amarylis has leaves, lots of them, as well as it’s stalk… does that mean I do not have a true Amarylis?

know what you’re thinking = Einstein did NOT eat the leaves (I asked). Seriously, when you keep amaryllis year after year, they often send up leaves first. And when they bloom repeatedly in the same season, there is foliage with flowers. But they’re all true amaryllis (hippeastrums).

Roger Raiche February 9, 2011, 1:06 pm

Enjoyed the article both for writing style and content. I did have some problem with your forgetfulness; personally I remember my first snowdrop, Puschkinia, and Lapageria – all were wonderful encounters, as with Hippeastrums as well (and Amaryllis belladonna). I’ve always had trouble with plant snobs – why hate any flower? And why does size disqualify a gorgeous flower from being appealing? Never could figure that one out (more detail to look at in my mind).
Thanks for a compelling story.

I don’t think plant snobs “hate” certain flowers, Roger, they simply don’t deign to recognize their existence. Or they snicker. My first major horticultural awakening (I was a vegetable gardener before) came like a tsunami of rare plants, it was a sensual barrage, really. I walked into a greenhouse and whammo. But when you pushed me, I did also remember my first meeting with puschkinia – it was at Winterthur alone in the hinter lands, just the puschkinias and me…a lacework of crabapples overhead…

Debra Lee Baldwin February 9, 2011, 7:39 pm

My first job was at a Japanese import company. I booked airline flights for the boss, and one day an exquisite woman from Japan Air Lines stopped by with what looked like an upside-down flowerpot with a 3-inch hole in the top…a gift for ME (and an odd one, I thought). I set it on my desk near a window, watered it gingerly (per the instructions) and watched a shoot emerge from the top, and grow…and grow… And then buds, and then amazing flowers followed by MORE buds and amazing flowers. I’d never seen anything like it. I wouldn’t be surprised if that wasn’t what triggered my lifelong interest in gardening. (Btw, my boss told me the amaryllis is the official flower of the emperor of Japan.)

So Debra,
Can we thank an amaryllis for one of the first rustlings of your passion for plants and subsequent windfall for the horticultural community of stellar photography and compelling garden writing?

rob cardillo February 9, 2011, 7:49 pm

T, your writing could make poison ivy look good! I’m growing a few pots of Amarylis this winter — they may not be my favorite flower but, gosh darn it, they have no competition for months on end.

Hey Rob – Everyone go to for refuge from winter. Better still, go the Wayne Art Center starting this Sunday Feb 13 until March 19 for Rob’s photography show of Chanticleer images that will change your life. So Rob, my amaryllis have mucho competition but they took the pageant by a long shot.

Joseph Tychonievich February 9, 2011, 9:41 pm

Oh my… I remember my first snow drop (a little clump by the porch discovered at age 9, the first year in a new house. I remember a late snow smooshing them flat, and then magically discovering them still blooming happily after it melted)
I remember my first pushkinia (in my first ever order of fall bulbs at age 14) I remember both my first picture of a amarylis (in a catalog, I was probably 12 — huge, red, posed with a small blond girl with a head smaller than the flower. I wanted to buy it, but decided to save my allowance for my obsession of the time, roses) and my first actual in-person amarylis — I ordered ‘Appleblossom’ but got a mis-labeled double flowered variety instead. I was half disappointed, half excited.
I’m not a amarylis fanatic, but I certainly know what you mean about growing out of the plant snob phase… when I was a teenager, I felt like I needed to like rare plants to be all adult and cool. I still love rare plants, but I also am falling harder every year for gladiolus, dahlias, lilies, and other big, glamorous, sexy flowers. Life is too short to always have good taste…

What say, Joseph? You’re not inferring for a nanosecond that (trembling lower lip) glads are…what?…uncool?…Say it isn’t so…Loved your imagery. Aah the smooshed snow. Aah the snowdrops struggling through. Aah that distant memory of bare ground and all it implies.

David Perry February 10, 2011, 2:29 pm

Somebody pinch me. Please.

I have been deeply indebted to you for several years now, Tovah, ever since you so lyrically introduced me to your friend, Tasha Tudor with a veritable magic carpet of storytelling.

I’m so pleased to finally make your acquaintance.

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