By Molly Day
All the Dirt on Gardening
St. Joseph’s lilies have been blooming around town since late May. They are one of the few amaryllis that are cold hardy enough to be grown outside in our area. Other names include hardy amaryllis and Johnson’s amaryllis.
Hippeastrum johnsonii is named for the plant breeder, watchmaker Arthur Johnson of Lancashire, U.K., who created the first St. Joseph’s lily in 1799. The parent plants were Hippeastrum reginae (from Peru) and Hippeastrum vittatum (from Brazil). Many other lilies have been introduced, but this one remains a favorite for gardeners who enjoy heritage plants.
Johnson shared his new lily with the Liverpool Botanic Garden shortly before his greenhouses were destroyed and his original bulbs lost.
Its cold hardy zones are from 6 to 12 (we are zone 7) so it is often grown as a potted plant by gardeners farther north. Outside it wants sun to part-shade and, like all bulbs, needs well-drained soil.
The flowers are red, bell-shaped with a white stripe. The throat of each flower is green. Each 1- to 2-foot stalk typically has four flowers, sometimes six. When grown indoors (forced with artificial light and heat) the stalks can grow very tall. Outside, in full sun the stalks will be closer to 8 inches tall.
After the flowers fade, seed pods form. The pods can be collected and the fresh seed planted directly into pots. Stored seeds will be less viable with slower and lower germination rates.
The leaves are strap-like, resembling other lilies. In areas where there is no hard freeze, the plants are evergreen all year. In full sunlight the leaves take on a copper tone.
Howard Garrett, The Dirt Doctor (www.dirtdoctor.com), calls them the tulip of the south. They give us the bright red color we crave on cloudy spring days but do not require the prolonged cold weather that Holland-grown tulips need in order to bloom.
St. Joseph lilies were offered in the United States by 1853 but today few companies carry them. They have become pass-along plants, so while they are blooming, this is a good time to stop and ask for a bulb or two wherever you see them growing.
St. Joseph’s lily bulbs are available from Bayou City Heirloom Bulbs in Texas (bayoucityheirloombulbs.com). Owner Patty Allen said: “These bulbs were rescued from old homesteads. They are not from tissue culture.”
Another source, Brent and Becky’s Bulbs (store.brentandbeckysbulbs.com) says they will form clumps after the first two years in the ground.
Around town, there are several large clumps visible in older home gardens. The bulbs that were given to us by a gardening friend came from a 40-foot row that had expanded over 20 years.
Bulbs are divided after flowering in the spring or in the fall. Plant the bulbs in loosened, amended soil with the bulb neck above ground level. When deciding where to plant the bulbs, give them plenty of room. The leaves can grow to 30 inches long and 1.5 inches wide.
Plant Delights Nursery (www.plantdelights.com) offers alternatives. 1) Hippeastrum ‘charisma’ (Charisma Hardy Hippeastrum), which is a solid red that resembles a red daylily; and, 2) Hippeastrum ‘voodoo’ (Naughty Lady Amaryllis) closely resembles St. Joseph’s lily but without the bright white stripe. They also have survived below zero temperatures at their zone 7 garden.
St. Joseph’s lilies and all hippeastrums are members of the Amaryllidaceae or onion family, making them deer and rabbit resistant.
In “Heirloom Gardening in the South” by Dr. Bill Welsh and Greg Grant, Grant said: “Without a doubt, Johnson’s hybrid is the finest Amaryllis for garden culture in the South. The combination of the brilliant red flowers, spicy fragrance, and it’s unbelievable toughness makes it a bulb without equal.”