Monday, 2 January 2012

Applauding the amaryllis or is it hip, hip, hooray for Hippeastrum?

I spied these beauties at the market on Friday and, inspired by some beautiful stems that Mum had on display over Christmas, I thought I'd indulge myself with a few. I hadn't expected the stall owner to offer me a whole box of 15 stems for £15. I'd handed over the cash before you could shout 'Taxi!'. Laden down with bags, a giant open box of flowers and a distinct lack of London black cabs - my inner Girl Guide gusto kicked in and I huffed and puffed my way to the bus stop. In my bargain blissful state, I'd forgotten that I had to get off the bus to pick up dinner, which meant going into battle at the fish counter at Waitrose - thank goodness for the invention of the small trolley - and walking the half mile home. It was so worth it.

These magnificent blooms were the topic of much discussion on the bus. The similarities between Rhubarb and the stems, Amaryllis v hyacinths and paperwhites, how can you not like the smell of hyacinths? [me - easily. They smell horrid], the cost of growing a stem yourself v buying one and favourite colours [apparently pillar box red].
Some of the stems have four blooms on them - it really is quite astonishing. Sarah Raven recommends popping a cane inside each stem to stop them collapsing from the weight of those pretty heads. I must confess that I came across her article after I'd popped them in the vase and couldn't face wrestling them out again. 

Thanks to Hugh Dennis reading Mark Forsyth's The Etymologicon on Radio 4 each morning (He has a brilliant blog here), I've started to pay a little more attention to certain words and where they've come from. The wonder of Google ta daared the following from the book Amaryllis

Hippeastrum: the name is a combination of hippos, Greek for horse, or hippeus, rider, and astron, star, which loosely translated means the horseman's star, sometimes elevated to the more aristocratic knight's star lily. 

And Wiki offered wisely -

Amaryllis is taken from a shepherdess in Virgil's pastoral 'Eclogues', from the Greek amarysso meaning to sparkle. 

Not sure about the horse, but I agree with the star and sparkle. In true Victoriana spirit, the flower was seen to represent pride and splendid beauty. 

It was only in 1987 that it was finally agreed that the giant bulb we give as Christmas presents (with firm instructions for 'this way up') should be classified as Hippeastrum and not Amaryllis - 150 years after the 'H' word first surfaced . It's not really caught on in the main - even the box that my stems came in were scrawled with Amaryllis and had flown in from Holland, a far cry from their South American heritage. 

What do you call yours? 

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