Linnaceus admired the beauty of this flower greatly and aptly named it Amaryllis belladonna. Amaryllis is derived from the Greek Amarullis, a beautiful shepherdess mentioned in the classics, while belladonna means ‘beautiful lady’ in Italian.
‘Our’ Amaryllis must not be confused with Hippeastrum which is American by origin. One of the differences between the two species is the capsule in Hippeastrum contains numerous flat, winged seeds, whereas that of Amaryllis contains a few large globose seeds.
Amaryllis belladonna has been cultivated in Europe since the first half of the 17th century. It was illustrated by the Jesuit priest G.B. Ferrari under the phrase name Narcissus indicus liliaceus diluto colore purpurascens , which means the Narcissus from a Dutch East Indiaman with funnel-shaped, pale red flowers. It is unknown who collected the first bulbs which were taken to Europe, but there is no doubt as to their origin.
There are several outcrops of these regal flowers in Knysna. One is totally unaware of their existence untill the magnificent flowers appear in mid March. The leaves, seven to nine, appear after the onset of the winter rains, they die back in early summer and the flowering stem is produced in autumn, pushing its way quite suddenly through the earth, with the buds protected by two large reddish triangular bracts. The solid flattened stem bears an umbel of five to ten flowers, very pale creamy pink, deepening to radiant rose in colour and with a sweet fruity scent.
Amaryllis belladonna occurs naturally only in the south-west Cape, from Clanwilliam to Riversdale, but it also appears as an escape in the Tsitsikamma area, especially where there have been previous settlements. It is usually found on bushy slopes in full sun or part shade, but it blooms best in the open and often provides a wonderful spectacle after a bush fire, which seems to stimulate blooming.
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 March 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. 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. The bulb is often attacked by a highly destructive black and yellow striped caterpillar called lily borer.
Caution: The bulb is extremely poisonous, the active principle being lycorine which affects the heart.