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Every year around this time a striking lily appears suddenly at the sides of the roads and around the local gardens. It has a smooth cocoa-brown stalk, leafless, and at the top are trumpet-shaped pink flowers. Bunches of them are quite beautiful, but stark, because of the strange color of the stalks and the lack of leaves. Due to the nakedness of the stalks and the pinkness of the flowers, they are called "naked ladies." Their effect on me is bittersweet because of their odd beauty, but also because their appearance means that the days of summer are numbered, that fall will be here soon, followed by winter, and that the late sunsets of midsummer will soon come to an end as the days grow abruptly shorter. I learned that the Naked Lady Lily is also called an Amaryllis (the only true Amaryllis, according to Wikipedia, though there are may other plants falsely called Amaryllis), and that the species is Amaryllis belladonna. I thought I might find some good stories about Amaryllis belladonna on the Internet, and I was not disappointed.
So, let's see, there's the poison thing, and the one about the Virgin Mary, and the spooky one about the Naked Lady Lily's involvement in the slave trade, and the one about the Latin poet Virgil. OK, let's start with Virgil, since his story is the oldest. It seems that the name Amaryllis comes from a Greek word meaning "I sparkle." Virgil was writing his Eclogues, a form of poetry called bucolic, which refers to the countryside. (Country and Western, as it were.) There are these two guys. One is complaining that the other is taking it easy in the shade, though they are both exiled from their homeland. The guy taking it easy in the shade is teaching the forest to resound to the name of Amaryllis. Why would he do that? I don't know, but Amaryllis must have been one very sparkly lady. Nothing about being naked, so far, but that brings us to the Virgin Mary story. It's actually not about her, but about her husband, St, Joseph. The legend has it that a suitable husband was being selected for the young Mary, and that Joseph made an impression with his long brown staff (his walking stick, of course) at the end of which a beautiful flower bloomed miraculously. The staff, but for the flower, was as naked and brown as the stem of the lily of late summer.
All right, we've got the name, the stalk, and the flower. The plant Amaryllis belladonna was a native of southern Africa, but it was brought around the world on the same ships from the same countries that participated in the European slave trade. It is said that the pink lilies were grown by slaveowners around their plantations. I've bookmarked the links on del.icio.us if you want to learn more. And now we get to the poison part.
The species name of the lily (genus Amaryllis) is belladonna, Italian for "beautiful lady." There is also a drug called belladonna, which was given that name because women would put an extract in their eyes to make their pupils dilate. Since pupillary dilation can also be a sign of sexual arousal, this cosmetic drug was employed at social gatherings to attract the attention of men. However, it was, and is, not to be taken lightly. It's very much like the drops the opthalmologist puts in your eyes to dilate them for examination. And belladonna in higher doses is poisonous, and was employed by poisoners over the centuries. Does the drug belladonna come from the lily Amaryllis belladonna? No! It comes from a plant called the Deadly Nightshade, related to tomatoes, potatoes, and tobacco.
The name "Naked Lady" for this plant appears to be a North American custom, while in the UK it is called the Belladonna Lily or the Jersey Lily. The Portuguese refer to St. Joseph's Staff (Bordão de São Jose), and in Sicily it's the St. Rosalina Lily and the rest of Italy, the Madonna Lily. In Spain, where it's also a harbinger of summer's end as it is here in California, it's said to be called "Meninas para Escola (Escuela?)" or the Back-to-School Girls. In its native South Africa, it's the March lily, because the summer ends in March. As for me, I prefer to think of naked ladies preparing me for the long nights of late fall and winter.Permanent Link to This Entry | | Technorati Tag: AmaryllisBelladonna blog comments powered by Disqus Comments (View)
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