St. Joseph’s Lily, Hardy Amaryllis, Johnson’s Amaryllis, Bouquet Amaryllis
The stunning St. Joseph’s Lily (Hippeastrum x johnsonii) that is so fondly associated with many Southern gardens originated as a chance cross between Amaryllis (Hippeastrum) vittata and A. reginae (both originally from South America). One of the first hybrid Amaryllis, it was perhaps unintentionally crossed by Arthur Johnson, a British watchmaker from Prescott in Lancashire between 1799 and 1810. First described and illustrated in 1816 by Pierre-Joseph Redoute, the plant was originally called Amaryllis brasiliensis and later referred to as Amaryllis johnsonii in 1831. The bulb could have been lost during the early days, but luckily Mr. Johnson shared his new plants with the Liverpool Botanic Garden before his greenhouse was accidently destroyed, along with everything inside. The plant made its way into cultivation in the US by the mid 1800s. And now after almost 200 years and few nursery offerings, the bulb is being propagated by Tony Avent using tissue culture and should be more readily available now.
St Joseph’s Lily is a true passalong plant and garden heirloom, spreading from neighbor to neighbor or through family ties in the South. It is a plant that can often be found blooming in abandoned homesteads and older cemeteries. In Perennial Garden Color, Dr Bill C. Welch calls them “living antiques because they are tangible symbols of success for generations of Southern gardeners. Many have been lovingly handed down among the families that contribute cultural diversity and richness to our gardens.” Many call this bulb the finest amaryllis for Southern gardens.
This tough plant is one of the hardiest amaryllis and is hardy to zone 7 (maybe even zone 5 or 6 with heavy mulch protection). It requires little care and is a member of the “takes a licking and keeps on ticking-blooming plants”. The ease that it returns to bloom each spring and multiplies (perennializing here) without much or any attention is one of the nicest attributes of this plant and makes it a great “first plant” for younger gardeners. It slowly spreads by bulb offsets without being invasive.
The leaves are thick masses of evergreen, semi-evergreen or deciduous (depending on the winter temperatures), strap-like foliage up to 30” long. In Central Texas, the leaves usually don’t die back and stay evergreen. In the sun, the foliage has a coppery hue. Plant height is a dramatic 24” tall when blooming. Some gardeners report this bulb is avoided by deer.
St. Joseph’s lily blooms in late winter to early summer (usually March-April here), has a spicy fragrance and often has 5-6 blooms per stalk. The bright red tepals (undifferentiated petals and sepals) with white “stars” on the throat form large trumpet-shaped blooms. Some mature bulbs can have up to 4 stalks (~24 blooms) on one plant and many bloom for a month.
The plant has average water requirements during the year and will even go dormant in the summer if there is less water. To avoid rotting the bulb, do not overwater it. It is a good xeric plant that can survive hot, dry summers. Either irrigate this plant during the summer to keep the foliage healthy or let it go dormant. Tolerant of full sun to part shade. Soil pH is ideal when acidic to neutral (5.5-7.5) and good drained is preferred. This bulb is more tolerant of heavy clay soils than other Amaryllis – but good drainage is needed in colder locations during the winter.
Like all amaryllis, St. Joseph’s Lily can be grown indoors but it is a little more finicky than the modern types and doesn’t bloom as well in a pot. The cut flowers can last a week or more in a vase.
The most popular type of propagation for gardeners is separation of the bulblets in the fall. They can be started from seed, but being a hybrid the offspring will probably be different than the mother plant. The plant rarely sets seed. Sow seed as soon as it is ripe. A wholesale tissue culture lab in Eustis, Florida called AG3 is now propagating this plant in greater quantities than previously done. At present it is rarely available in the nursery trade and can command $18 for one very large bulb, but with tissue culture, there should be many more available at a reduced price.
It is believed that the common name St. Joseph’s Lily is in reference to its blooming time which coincides in some areas with St. Joseph’s Day on March 19th.