We were snowed in all of last week, on our rural property with its long, long driveway at the bottom of a steep hill. No use taking chances: we stayed home. There was plenty of food. The power stayed on (mostly), and even when it did go off, the airtight fireplace kept us warm. With perfect timing, the Amaryllis I potted up in the fall came into bloom, and provided a spot of colour on the windowsill. Outside, the landscape was entirely monochromatic.
Amaryllis was a shepherdess in the Idylls of Theocritus. Virgil used the name for a shepherdess who appears in his pastoral “Eclogues” (“I used to wonder, Amaryllis, why / You cried to heaven so sadly, and for whom / You left the apples hanging on the trees”).
However, the plant on my windowsill, while commonly called “Amaryllis”, is not entitled to that name. In 1987, the 14th International Botanical Congress decided that “Amaryllis” would be the name given to another plant, a South African native, while the South American plant (and its hybrids) would be called “Hippeastrum”. The confusion over names persists, and when I did a search on “Amaryllis”, hoping to find a source for a true Amaryllis, Amaryllis belladonna, every bulb advertised as “Amaryllis” was, in fact, Hippeastrum.
At first, I was disappointed by this information. “Amaryllis” is a beautiful name, while “Hippeastrum” sounds like something involving a sixties folk musician. Fortunately, as I continued with my research, the name started to become more interesting to me. The origin of the name begins with the Greek word for horse (“hippos”). Think of the hippopotamus, whose name means “river horse”.