Growing the Belladonna Plant… good results often are a matter of luck with this lily.
Good results with most kinds of garden flowers indicate gardening skill, but there are a few – like the Belladonna lily – where good results may be largely a matter of luck.
The bella donna plant ranks high on the list of capricious, temperamental kinds. The beginner is as likely to have good results as the seasoned gardener.
What it will do in the garden next door may be slight indication of what it will do in one’s own garden. The only commonly known way to get bloom from it is to plant bulbs and wait until it decides to flower.
During August and September the bella donna lily bears large clusters of fragrant, trumpet-shaped clear vivid pink flowers on two-foot leafless stems.
It has been described as “the showiest ornament of its season” and so enchants many a gardener that thye would rather give it space for years without bloom than abandon hope of flowering it.
In England it has been standard for a couple of centuries for hot, sunny places. In many California gardens it self-sows freely and spreads rapidly. But even in England and California it may sulk four or five years if moved at the wrong season.
Presumably it is capricious even in its homeland of South Africa for the wild bulbs are reported to bloom best after they have been burned over by bush fires!
Two Different Plants
Unfortunately, and through no one’s fault, much of what is in print about the belladonna is misleading. Two different plants with very different habits are called belladonna plant and there is rarely any way to tell of which one someone is talking about.
Add to this the fact that botanists since the days of Linnaeus have disagreed about the correct Latin names for the two kinds, and there is ample basis for the confusion.
A large part of the world, including students of Webster’s Dictionary, knows the belladonna plant as Amaryllis belladonna. For years some specialists have called it Brunsrigia rosea and was listed in catalogs as such.
It has been at times recommended for growing indoors in pots but is usually more unreliable when grown that way than when grown outdoors – and is much more bother.
Where drainage is good and the location slightly sheltered it has survived outdoors in northern Ohio, but the farther north it is grown, the greater the uncertainty about its blooming.
Apparently only an occasional season is mild enough to enable it to mature bulb strength sufficient for flowering in the northern part of its range.
It seems agreed that the bulbs like a summer baking, hence much of the Midwest offers conditions favorable for it. Good bloom has been reported from various parts of Oklahoma.
I had a friend report bloom in central Kentucky five years after planting. Further south than Oklahoma and Kentucky results should be better.
There are several varieties and many strains, which is one reason for varying results.
The variety common in northern California, for example, has long been listed as Belladonna minor while the one common in southern California has been offered as purpurea major.
Part of the luck involved in success with the plant lies in getting a start of a strain suited to one’s locality.
The bulbs are huge. Different growers recommend different planting depths. I opt for planting the lily with the tip just showing or else barely covered. Experience seems to indicate the ground should be heavily watered at flowering time, either by rain or by sprinkler system.
Experience also seems to indicate, the longer the bulbs are out of the ground at planting time, along with the greater the drying back of root growth, the more years it will take the bulbs to flower.
Bulbs moved with no drying of the roots just after flowering stems die back will often bloom the following summer.
Bulb suppliers are more likely to offer hybrids than the old-fashioned varieties but can usually supply the latter even if they do not list them.
Over The Winter
Belladonnas in the Midwest begin their leaf growth in October and continue growing during winter and early spring.
Foliage dies back completely in June. The bare flowering stalks appear suddenly a couple of months later, in the same fashion as the common lycoris. When winters are cold the leaf tips freeze back – I’ve seen mine freeze back about an inch during normal winters.
Ideally the plants should be mulched to prevent tip freezing, with a mulch that would not reduce the amount of winter light.
They can be grown from fresh seed. Seeds vary in size from a grain of rice to a pea and are iridescent as mother of pearl.
When the capsules in which they ripen fall to damp ground the seeds sprout in the capsule as peas sprout in the pod. When I adapted this procedure by placing freshly collected seed in a plastic bag with a bit of damp sphagnum moss I had perfect germination.
Gardeners who wish to do some hybridizing with a view to leaving the gardening world richer than they found it will find that the belladonna can be crossed with many members of the Amaryllis family.
The most widely sold cross is known as – amacrinum, a hybrid of the belladonna lily and a crinum lily.
It was bred for floriferousness rather than hardiness and is probably more of a gamble than the belladonna lily except perhaps in the Gulf States. The great opportunity for would-be garden benefactors lies in hybridizing the belladonna lily for hardiness and dependability.