why mediterranean in lower case? 

The typical leafless shoots of Amaryllis belladonna, emerging at the end of the mediterranean climate summer.

'Naked' flower stems growing from the summer-dormant bulbs (note the dried leaves from the previous winter/spring).  photo by ©chuck b. on flickr

botanical illustration of Paulownia tomentosa enlarge this image

An unirrigated mass planting of Amaryllis in an urban setting (Berkeley, CA).

In winter and spring, the lush foliage of A. belladonna is a significant presence and should be given room to develop.

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Amaryllis belladonna

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At a Glance

height: 20in • 50cm (flowers)

width: 24in • 60cm (leaves)

USDA: 9-10

well drained
rich, loamy
neutral PH
bulb, corm,
or tuber
a good deer


Amaryllis belladonna L.

aw…maw…R⋅R⋅RUUHL…lihs  bell…lah…DOHN…nah

Amaryllidaceæ Amaryllidoideæ Amaryllideæ Amaryllidinæ

Has also been placed in Liliaceæ

Amaryllis : Greek: a shepardess from classical poetry • belladonna : fair or beautiful lady

naked ladies, belladonna lily, Jersey lily, Guernsey Lily, Barbados lily Afrikaans: maart lelie (March lily) Català (Catalan): lliri de Santa  Paula, lliri de Santa Cristina, lliri de  mar Español: amariles, azucena de San Miguel, azucena de Santa Paula, la suegra y la nuera Française: lis belladone Italiano: amarillo, belladonnalilie Português: açucena-do-cabo, lírio-beladona, bordao de Sao Jose, meninas para escola Türk (Turkish): pembe trompetler Ελληνική (Greek): αμαρυλίδα

العربية (Arabic): أمارليس עברית (Hebrew): אַמאַרי, אמריליס יפהפה

Native to the Western Cape of South Africa but now commonly grown in mediterranean and similar climates worldwide.

Synonymy: Coburgia belladonna (L.) Herb. ex Sims 1819; Leopoldia belladonna (L.) M.Roem. 1847

There continues to be long standing confusion between this beautiful bulb and another - Lycoris squamigera.  The simplest way to sort this out is if you see the plant growing in a mild, wet winter / summer dry climate (i.e. mediterranean) than it is Amaryllis; if it is growing in a cold winter / summer wet climate, then it is Lycoris.  Copious information online, in print, and in various types of social media routinely confuses the two and should be read with this in mind.  (A fuller discussion can be found below).

The true Amaryllis belladonna is native to the South Western Cape of South Africa.  The bulb is typically large, brown and rounded and has a moderate growth rate.  The large clusters of scented, trumpet-shaped pink or white flowers are carried on a long purplish-red and green stem appearing 20in· 50cm above the soil.  Up to twelve flowers are produced from the flowering stem.  These flowers are 4in· 10cm long and apically flare open about 3in· 8cm.  Protruding from each flower is a long upturned style amongst a group of large curved anthers.  The anthers are black and shiny at first, but split open to reveal masses of sticky white pollen.  The inflorescence tends to face the direction that receives the most sun.  Although most flowers are pale pink, white and dark pink forms occur.

The strap-like leaves are deciduous and are produced after flowering, remaining green throughout the winter, producing starch, which is stored in the bulb.  In summer the leaves die back and the bulb becomes fully dormant. The belladonna lily's specific flowering time is late summer, July and August (February and March in South Africa).  The phenomenon of flowering before the leaves appear is known as hysteranthy.

Amaryllis belladonna, in their natural habitat, flowering shortly after a bush fire.

Amaryllis belladonna in its natural habitat is found in small dense groups among rocks in the fynbos, the South African equivalent of our dense California chaparral.  The most impressive flowering of Amaryllis belladonna in the wild occurs after fires in the fynbos.  Cultivated plants can flower regularly each year, so fire would not seem to be an necessary trigger.  It has been observed that brush clearing around wild populations is also followed by prolific flowering, so a bright exposure for the bulbs to 'bake' during the summer dormant period would appear to be important to promote flowering.  Evidence for this can also be found in cultivated plants, which are reticent to flower in partially shaded sites.

The latin genus Amaryllis is from Amarullis (Greek; Αμαρυλλίς), who is a beautiful shepherdess referred to in Roman pastoral poetry.  The specific epithet belladonna means beautiful lady.  The appearance of the tall, flower stalk without any leaves accounts for the common name "naked lady".  In South Africa, this bulb called 'March lily', referring to the month of its flowering.

St. Joseph is usually shown with a staff or rod brusting into flower (see text).

Other common names include 'belladonna Lily', in the UK 'Jersey Lily', as 'St. Rosalina' in Sicily, or 'St. Rosa' or The Madonna Lily in Italy, and sometimes in Portugal as 'Meninas Para Escola', translating to 'girls going to school' as they bloom in at the beginning of the school year (late September) when girls in pink uniforms start attending classes.  The Portuguese name 'Bordao de Sao Jose' (St. Joseph's Staff), is a reference to a vision by 20th century mystic Maria Valtorta, where she relates that Joseph was chosen to become the husband of the Virgin because of pink flowers which miraculously sprouted from his dry staff.

Portugal was likely responsible for the introduction of Amaryllis belladonna in to Europe, possibly as early as the late 15th or early 16th century.  Portuguese ships engaged in spice trade used the South African Cape as a stopping point on their way to the Indies.  While there is no actual record of this introduction, the early appearance of this bulb in various Portuguese ports of call is highly suggestive.

Growing Amaryllis belladonna

The cultivation of Amaryllis belladonna requires very little attention.  Amaryllis belladonna can be grown from seed.  The soft fleshy white to pink seed, which ripen in late August (or March in South Africa) should be planted when fresh.  Dispersal of seed in winter is normally by wind.  In South Africa, seed dispersal is timed to coincide with the first winter rains in late March and April.  In California, natural rainfall in September is generally not sufficient to trigger germination, nor consistent enough to successfully raise the young seedlings.  Germination can occur in two weeks, but seedlings require three to six years or longer to flower.

During the dormant period, or during flowering, large clumps of bulbs can be divided or new bulbs planted.  The bulbs should be planted with their necks at or just above soil level.  The bulb requires no supplemental water in mediterranean climates.  They can also be grown in large pots using a very porous soil mix.

There is still some mystery as to what pollinates the large, showy and fragrant flowers of Amaryllis belladonna.  Rudolf Marloth, a famous amateur botanist, believed that the belladonna lily was being pollinated by a hawk moth.  It was also noticed that large carpenter bees visited the flowers during the day.  On the Cape Peninsula, at least, it seems that bees are the main pollinators of the Amaryllis belladonna.  In its homeland, this bulb is often attacked by a highly destructive black and yellow striped caterpillar called lily borer.  In California, no significant pests have been recorded.

A varied group of Amaryllis and ×Amarygia hybrids at the LA County Arboretum and Botanical Gardens

A pure white ×Amarygia hybrid.  photo by ©amarguy on flickr

The family Amaryllidaceae forms a large group of over sixty genera, which are mainly centred in the southern Africa with smaller distributions in Andean South America.  Other genera that belong to this family that have horticultural importance and are found in southern Africa include Brunsvigia, Clivia, Crinum, Cyrthanthus, Nerine and ScadoxusHippeastrum, a large South American genus, some gardeners mistakenly call Amaryllis because it was once considered by botanists to be included in that genus.  Other northern hemisphere genera include Narcissus (daffodils) and Leucojum.

Amaryllis belladonna was first successfully crossed with the closely related genus Brunsvigia in the mid 19th century in Australia.  The resulting plants are now generally given the name ×Amarygia though ×Brunsdonna has also been used in the past.  Typically they closely resemble Amaryllis belladonna, except for their larger number of flower and wider diversity of colors (whites, pinks, reddish-pink, and bicolors).  Hybrid crosses with NerineAmarine) and CrinumAmarcrinum) have also been made.

Lycoris squamigera has been confused with Amaryllis belladonna because of their similar look and flower habit.

Another bulb often called 'naked lady' is Lycoris squamigera from China.  It flowers in a similar fashion (leafless) and a similar time (late July) as Amaryllis belladonna, but its leaves appear in spring/summer and it is better adapted to colder, summer wet climates.  The flowers tend to be a more lavender pink color and are held upright and encircling the stems rather than the more typical one-sided, slightly pendant manner of amaryllis.  The flower petals tend to be more separate whereas amaryllis flowers tend to overlap more, keeping a trumpet-shape.  The stamens and pistil of Lycoris also extend further beyond the petals.  Lycoris bulbs are smaller, with darker skins (similar to Narcissus) in contrast to the large, pale skinned amaryllis bulbs;  Because of the confusion between these two species, bulbs of this plant are sometimes offered under the name of Amaryllis belladonna, but the Lycoris resents being summer-dry and is therefore difficult to grow in a mediterranean climate.

Both Lycoris and Amaryllis contain compounds that are poisonous (Lycorine and Amarbellisine respectively), similar to many other ornamental species in the Amaryllidaceæ (e.g. Clivia, Narcissus), though poisonings are quite rare and require ingestion of a fair amount of material.  The compounds in these plants are NOT the same as the very deadly belladonna alkaloid (Atropine) found in the unrelated Atropa belladonna and other species of the Solanaceæ.

This article was adapted, with permission, from an article by Trevor Adams, Kirstenbosch, March 2001, published on the website of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (www.plantzafrica.com), and from information found on David Fenwick's website The African Garden (www.theafricangarden.com).

Seán O'Hara


William T Stearn. 2004. Botanical Latin. Timber Press. ISBN 0881926272 / ISBN13 9780881926279 http://gimcw.org/books/bookinfo.cfm?bookid=blwts

Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN). National Plant Germplasm System. USDA Agricultural Research Service. Website http://www.ars-grin.gov/npgs/aboutgrin.html

Pacific Bulb Society (PBS). Amaryllis. PBS Wiki. Website http://www.pacificbulbsociety.org/pbswiki/index.php/Amaryllis [accessed 12 March 2013].

Adams, T.. March 2001. Amaryllis belladonna. South African National Biodiversity Institute. Website http://www.plantzafrica.com/plantab/amarylbella.htm [accessed 11 Feb 2010].

Fenwick, Dave. Amaryllis species and hybrids. The African Garden. Website http://www.theafricangarden.com/page49.html [accessed 13 Feb 2010].

Nottle, Trevor. 2003. Plants for Mediterranean Climate Gardens. Rosenberg Publishing. ISBN 1877058149/978-1877058141

Wikispecies. 10 Jan 2010. Amaryllis belladonna. Wikispecies, free spcies directory. Website http://species.wikimedia.org/wiki/Amaryllis_belladonna [accessed 13 Mar 2010].