Perhaps my Amaryllis may appear;
I’ll set up such a Note as she shall hear.
What Nymph but my melodious Voice would move?
She must be Flint, if she refuse my Love.
- from Amaryllis; Or, the Third Idyllium of Theocritus by John Dryden
A few months before Christmas, I moved from Los Angeles to Rhode Island. Fall was a show-stopper of crisp weather and colors, but before the curtain closed, a bitter winter set in. As the days grew shorter and darker, without my close-knit family to spend the holidays with, my mood also darkened.
One day, while out grocery shopping, I saw a display of boxes filled with bulbs. There were tulips and hyacinths, lilies and muscari, but the largest of the containers was filled with a bulb I thought I had never seen before, an amaryllis. Unlike the other bulbs, this one was in a box designed to be given as a gift. I bought one for myself called ‘Red Lion’, and took it home.
Once home, I unpacked the box and removed from it a plastic pot, a disc of dirt shrink-wrapped in plastic, and a bulb. I chucked the plastic pot, opting for an old glass vase to display it instead, and dropped the dirt disc in, topped it with water, and watched as the disc expanded, then crumbled into a soft mound of soil. I picked up the bulb, its thin skin like an onion, and plopped it halfway into the dirt. Days are especially short in New England at that time of year, so I chose a south-facing window for it to dwell, and went on with my life.
By Thanksgiving, bright green leaves had emerged from the bulb. They were narrow and resembled the tops of scallions, but I considered their effort progress. While I endured a Thanksgiving dinner with a partner whose sister chucked turkey across the table to her dog at the other end, my amaryllis was staying toasty warm above the radiator, watching the sun set, a late fall sky turned crimson. I was envious.
The days grew darker still and my joy waned. I had just quit my job, but I was also questioning my move to Rhode Island, and in general, what I was doing with my life. Had I the presence of mind then, I might have looked up the meaning of amaryllis and found some strength in its appearance in my life.
In fact, it’s only fairly recent that the amaryllis became associated with Christmas, largely because of its ability to be forced to bloom at that time of year. It’s natural blooming cycle occurs in the spring time. I’ll get to that, but before its modern placement in our winter tablescapes, the Victorians in their “language of flowers” considered the amaryllis a symbol of courage. The name though, where does that come from?
Ancient Greek myths and poetry abound with the name Amaryllis, which was a common name for a country girl, but there was one story about an Amaryllis that particularly resonated with me. It was the story of a young maiden who fell in love with cold-hearted man called Alteo. Desperate for his affection, she pierced her heart with a golden arrow and visited him every day, shedding drops of blood along the way. On the 13th day, it is said that scarlet amaryllis flowers bloomed where drops of blood had fallen. Alteo, so moved by seeing the striking flowers, fell in love with her.
A few things to clarify. The amaryllis is a tropical plant. In fact, it was discovered in Chile in 1828. Also, it takes a minimum of six weeks for an amaryllis to bloom, darkness being a pre-requisite for it to be transformed. As a story though, these things don’t matter. What matters is the symbolism. In Greek mythology, the number thirteen corresponded to Zeus, the most powerful god. Uneven numbers are mentioned in Virgil’s pastoral Eclogues—in which another Amaryllis was mentioned—where the object of her affection says “an uneven number heaven delights.” In other words, this number is a good omen.
There is also the slightly dramatic symbolism of Amaryllis’ blood being shed for the one she loved. Even the C&E Christians won’t miss the connection to Christ shedding his blood on the cross. While it could equally stand in for an Easter plant, the amaryllis that is readily available to force is a red variety, selected—no doubt—because it represents the universal color of Christmas, a holiday celebrated by Christians as the birth of Jesus Christ, who shed his blood for them.
At Christmas, I was not thinking about Jesus. I was thinking about the enormous meal I was preparing for the same Thanksgiving brood who was responsible for me dodging airborne turkey. Only this time it would be on my turf. There would be no buffet or paper plates for this supper for eighteen. The menu would reflect my English roots with bowls of gravy to pour over potatoes,Yorkshire Pudding, vegetables, and a sublime roasted prime rib.
When the day arrived, I decorated the table with blue and white plates, which were festooned with small, fresh pine cones, each holding a name card. Above the table, a chandelier sparkled after I spent the day before individually cleaning its dangling crystals. The lights low, the table glowed from a bonfire of candles capable of torching the greenery. But the real star of the decor was my amaryllis, which stood watch over the appetizer table. It was just beginning to open up, a latecomer to this Christmas supper.
That night, after the guests had left and my partner and I had exchanged gifts, I set about turning down the house. My last stop was the amaryllis, which I had returned to its warm post in the window above the radiator. Every day, for almost eight weeks, I’d made a ritual of photographing my growing friend, documenting her every move. And every night like that night and every night before it, I’d visit her, taking her slender leaves between my thumb and forefinger, caressing her, before I said, “See you in the morning.” While I was pleased with the meal I made (the only real gift I had to offer), I couldn’t shake a feeling of doubt and longing. I wished for a moment I could trade places with this humble plant. Its future, unlike mine, I knew.
About a week later, as predicted, the amaryllis did bloom. Around the same time my partner and I had learned that we needed to suddenly move, and the encroaching move date filled me with dread. At that point, I had moved nineteen times. I was ready to put down roots, so much so, that when I bought the amaryllis I ended up buying spring bulbs too, and planted them outside. I rationalized (dumbly) that if I planted these bulbs, then we would stay.
In the end, the only bulb that came with me was the amaryllis. Soon after, we moved to town, far away from the farm I very much wanted to call home. I placed the amaryllis in a new window, this one high above the street and looking far out towards the Atlantic Ocean. When the red petals eventually wilted, I took the bulb and wrapped it in tissue paper, and tucked it into a box where it rested under my bed until I moved once more a year later to Florida, back to where I grew up.
I was visiting with my parents at Easter, and went out into the backyard with my dad, when I spotted it. A pink amaryllis standing strong and elegant among a spindly bed of shrubs. Yes, I had seen this plant before, I realized, it was a constant companion of my father’s lilies that perfumed the air every spring. I had just broken up with the partner I moved to Rhode Island to be with, and I was sad. But seeing the amaryllis thriving in a completely different environment gave me hope.
This fall, I found my boxed amaryllis and unwrapped the bulb I bought two years before, and I planted it in a pot in Florida. I’ve been watching it slowly emerge, green wisps peeking out from its papery skin, and I’m reminded of the time it takes to grow, but most importantly, the darkness we need to be transformed.