Monday, January 30, 2012

A story about a beautiful "naked" lady

Amaryllis belladonna (Italian: "beautiful lady") is one of my favorite short botanical rant topics. Native to the Cape of Good Hope it has naturalized in our similar Mediterranean climate (here, in California). Currently in the Bay Area you can see them in their green winter mode- out on the trail, roadsides and in the garden- and so is my great opportunity to rant away:

Amaryllis belladonna, or as it's more often affectionately known, the "naked lady" is a plant that has many layers of stories. Firstly, of course, it is so often the butt of many a joke as us plant folk don't have enough silly named plants to work with, so we tend to exploit the few ones that are around for a few good laughs... from "blue dicks" to "naked ladies". Often times this is where the story for most end, an excuse to get a rise after saying you have naked ladies in your front yard. This I can appreciate. Although to delve deeper one would learn that the reason they are referred to as "naked" is because they exhibit a  strange form of botanical....ness called hysteranthy (sidebar: another notable plant that shares this phenomenon is saffron). This is when the flower comes before the leaves. Basically the bulbs that stay in the ground shoot up the leaves in mid to late winter . Strappy vibrant green. Currently you can see them in the bay area in their less flashy appearance. I like to think of them as "clothed ladies" and what better time to be clothed than at winter. It all just seems so appropriate.

Photo taken at Fremont Older
Around Spring the leaves yellow, dry up and translocate the nutrients back to the bulbs. Several months later, in late Summer, pop up these beautiful "naked" ladies. Letting it all hang out with flower stalk and pink blossoms.

The Etymological: Some sources claim the name belladonna was given due to the flowers resembling the complexion of a beautiful lady. Amaryllis in Greek means fresh and sparkling, although originally Amaryllis was a Greek nymph who has her own story of love and tragedy where she pierced her own heart to make a flower to win the one she loved.

The Ethnobotanical: Amaryllis belladonna was used by women in Italy back in the Victorian era to dilate pupils in order to appear more attractive*. And even today the amaryllis belladonna is used for similar purposes: atropine, an alkaloid of belladonna that blocks certain nerve impulses, is used by ophthalmologists to dilate the pupils for eye exams. That's a pretty cool lady.

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