amaryllis [key], common name for some members of the Amaryllidaceae, a family of mostly perennial plants with narrow, flat leaves and with lilylike flowers borne on separate, leafless stalks. They are widely distributed throughout the world, especially in flatlands of the tropics and subtropics. Many ornamental plants of this family are mistakenly called lilies; they can be distinguished from members of the lily family (Liliaceae) by the anatomical placement of the ovary (see flower) and are considered more advanced in evolution than the lilies. Sometimes the amaryllis family is included in the Liliaceae.
Several fragrant, showy-blossomed species are commonly called amaryllis: the true amaryllis (Amaryllis belladonna), or belladonna lily, of S Africa, and the more frequently cultivated tropical American species of Sprekelia, Lycoris, and especially Hippeastrum (e.g., the Barbados lily). The large Narcissus genus, including jonquils and daffodils, is native chiefly to the Mediterranean region, but it has been naturalized and is now widespread in the United States. Although the common names are sometimes used interchangeably, strictly the daffodil is the yellow N. pseudo-narcissus, with a long, trumpet-shaped central corona; the jonquil is the yellow N. jonquilla, with a short corona; and the narcissus is any of several usually white-flowered species, e.g., the poet's narcissus (N. poetica) with a red rim on the corona. The biblical rose of Sharon may have been a narcissus. Among many others that have become naturalized and are cultivated in Europe and North America are the snowdrops (any species of Galanthus), small early-blooming plants of the Old World whose flowers are symbolic of consolation and of promise; and the tuberose (Polianthes tuberosa), a waxy-flowered Mexican plant.
Economically, the most important plants of the family are of the nonbulbous genus Agave, the tropical American counterpart of the African Aloe genus of the family Liliaceae (lily family). Different agaves provide soap (e.g., those called amoles—see soap plant), food and beverages, and hard fiber. Henequen and sisal hemp are among the fibers obtained from agaves; fique and Cuban hemp come from other similar genera. Maguey is the Mexican name for various species (chiefly A. americana) called American aloe, or century plant, that contain the sugar agavose, sometimes used medicinally but better known as the source of the popular alcoholic beverages pulque and mescal (or mezcal). The name “century plant” arises from the long intervals between bloomings—from 5 to 100 years. After blooming, the century plant dies back and is replaced by new shoots. The blue agave (A. tequilana weber azul) is the maguey used in making tequila. The agave cactus (Leuchtenbergia principis) is a true cactus that resembles the agave.
Amaryllis is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Liliopsida, Lilliales, Amaryllidaceae.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Plants