Dramatic flowers have the power to amaze
Gardeners look forward to the arrival of snowdrops in late winter more eagerly than any other event in the garden. But in many ways the sudden presence of colchicums and amaryllis now, at the fag end of summer, is even more dramatic. Partly it's because both of them push their flowers through the ground, naked of any leaves. There's no clump of foliage to prepare you for the event. One day, bare earth. The next, these fat fleshy nubs of colour.
Both flowers have adopted the same way of growing: flowers in autumn, leaves in spring. The leaves have all died down by the time the flowering season comes round again. Why have they taken this line? If they both came from the same part of the world, you might suppose it was a response to a particular set of growing conditions. But they don't. One is a southern hemisphere plant, the other northern.
Colchicums are natives of mainland Europe, with a few species stretching east in to Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. One kind, Colchicum autumnale, is reckoned a British native, growing in woods and damp meadows in the West Country. I've never seen it in the wild, but perhaps it was always rare. Physicians knew, as far back as medieval times, that a concoction of the bulbs made a good cure for gout, so colchicums were heavily collected. The essential element, colchicine, is a powerful drug that's still used.
Colchicums sit on the ground, stemless, like overfed crocuses. Amaryllis are more dramatic, spearing through the ground with pointed buds that open into showy pink flowers on top of stems almost a metre tall. The stems are almost as beautiful as the flowers - smooth, blemish-free and a soft mauve-grey, washed over with a fragile pale bloom.
The colchicum family has evolved into quite a large group of species; the amaryllis hasn't bothered. There are only two known types and the one we see over here is Amaryllis belladonna. Belladonna brings to mind the deadly drug, but that's a nightshade, Atropa belladonna, not this autumn-flowering bulb.
It comes from the Western Cape, a kind of super-cauldron for plants. We have perhaps 1,800 different native plants in the whole of Britain. In the Western Cape there are 9,000, with a completely different set of plants growing in the Eastern Cape, where the coastal areas are washed and moderated by sea currents swirling down from Madagascar.
At home in South Africa, A. belladonna grows on rocky hillsides and alongside streams. We have to give it as much help as possible to stagger through our winters, which are colder than it is used to. So we plant it at the base of south-facing walls where it will get some protection from frost. It is worth any amount of trouble because the gorgeous pink trumpet flowers, flaring out at the top of the tall stem, are so extravagantly at odds now with the general end-of-show air of everything around them.
In the wild, amaryllis is sparked into growth by the first autumn rains. With us, it responds in a similar way, but the bulbs need to be kept as hot and dry as possible during the summer. Without this rest, they are unlikely to flower well.
They make good plants for a conservatory, but you need to plant them in deep pots, with the neck of the bulb level with the top of the compost. They'll do best in a loam-based compost mixed with grit (two parts compost to one part grit). Water the pot when the bulb is first planted, then again when the flower stem begins to show. Inside, you have a better chance of catching the lovely soft scent of amaryllis, fresh, like apples. But then you have the problem of keeping the plant happy until after it has produced its foliage.
The Cape amaryllis arrived in Britain in 1712 and, soon after, was one of the hundreds of flowers pictured by Mary Delany who took up collage in her seventies. The British Museum has more than 900 of these exquisite flower portraits, made from tissue papers overlaid in tiny strips and segments to represent exactly the shades of colour in the real flower.
Mrs Delany labelled her collages very methodically, so we know that this particular portrait was made on 18 September 1775 at Bulstrode Park in Buckinghamshire. The place is significant, as it was where one of the best collections of South African plants in Britain was being built up by the Duchess of Portland, a close friend of Mrs Delany.
Her technique was to make the collages on a background of black paper, so that the plants stand out, almost in three dimensions. She has captured perfectly the form of the plant and, which is more extraordinary, the grape-like texture of the stem. Check it out at britishmuseum.org.