Consisting mostly of bulbous plants, this family occurs naturally
throughout the tropics and warm temperate regions of the world.
Many species have extravagantly lovely flowers and are highly prized
All Amaryllidaceae are perennials and apart from Clivia, Cryptostephanus
and Scadoxus, which have rhizomes, the majority have bulbous
storage organs. While growing, the bulb is kept sufficiently deep
below ground by special roots that lengthen and contract.
often the leaves are strap-shaped and smooth but occasionally they
have unusual shapes, markings and coverings. Genera like Eucrosia
which occupy habitats with low light-intensity, have leaves that
are especially broad and flattened, whereas in the semi-arid parts
of southern Africa, species of Brunsvigia, Crossyne, Gethyllis
and Haemanthus have leaves covered with variously shaped
hairs. The leaves in Crossyne and some Haemanthus
species are also attractively spotted with dark green or red.
Amaryllidaceae usually have numerous flowers held in an umbrella-like
cluster at the end of a leafless stem, called a scape. In unusual
genera like Gethyllis (kukumakranka), however, the scape
carries only one flower and remains subterranean. Flowers are frequently
large and showy and vary from star-like to trumpet-shaped or tubular.
Colours range from red, orange, yellow and pink to white, whereas
bluish flowers are only found in Griffenia, Worsleya and
Lycoris. They all produce nectar and are often heavily scented.
Each flower has six segments (tepals), frequently arising from a
long to short tube. The flowers of Narcissus (the daffodil)
characteristically have a large, cup-shaped corona, which is an
outgrowth of the tepals. Six stamens are typical of the family,
but some Griffenia species have five stamens and some Gethyllis
species have multiple stamens with about 60 anthers. In Pancratium
and Hymenocallis the stamens are fused to form a large cup,
which resembles the corona in Narcissus. The ovary is inferior
(i.e. located below the tepals) and carries a single style.
The fruits are dry or fleshy and contain dry, dark and often flattened,
or fleshy, round, and greenish seeds.
The basic chromosome number of x = 11 is most common.
World-wide the family has 59 genera and about 850 species. Major
centres of diversity are South America (28 genera) and South Africa
(18 genera). Despite the Mediterranean being the source of numerous
horticultural introductions, the region has only eight genera, whereas
Australia is poor in having only three genera.
Southern Africa has 210 endemic Amaryllidaceae species. Namaqualand
and the Cape Region together have 111 species and 77% of these are
found nowhere else.
Amaryllidaceae occupy many different habitats: seasonally dry places,
ephemeral pools, the understorey of rainforests, and rivers.
Name and History
First described by Jean Henri Jaume St. Hilaire in 1805, the family
is named after Amaryllis, a pretty shepherdess mentioned by Theocritus,
Virgil and Ovid. Close relatives are Alliaceae (the onion family)
and Agapanthaceae (the agapanthus family). Despite recent proposals
to combine the three families, their chemical compounds are nevertheless
sufficiently different to keep them apart.
South Africa, many Amaryllidaceae species are adapted to cope with
wildfires and those that depend on fire to flower are appropriately
known as fire lilies. Especially in Cyrtanthus
the flowers are so diverse that they attract sunbirds, bees, long-tongued
flies, butterflies and moths. Southern Africa also has several Amaryllidaceae
with remarkable dispersal abilities. Species of Brunsvigia, Boophone
and Crossyne in particular have large, light, spherical fruiting
heads that tumble along the ground in the wind, shedding their seeds
as they move.
Habitat loss is currently the greatest threat to the Amaryllidaceae
in South Africa, where 59 species are endangered or vulnerable and
58 species are near threatened.
Economic and cultural value
World-wide the Amaryllidaceae have greatest economic value as ornamentals.
In addition, huge numbers of plants are traded for traditional medicines.
Africans use the bulbs and leaves as poultices and decoctions for
treating sores and digestive disorders, but in large dosages they
are extremely poisonous. The Zulu people of South Africa also use
rhizomes of clivias as protective charms.
In Peru, the Inca people frequently depicted flowers of Amaryllidaceae
(Ismene, Pyolirion and Stenomesson) on ceremonial
drinking vessels. In southern Africa, however, indigenous art portraying
plants is rare. The single known rock painting of a Brunsvigia
species in Lesotho probably emphasizes how much the San people valued
the bulbs for their psychoactive effects.
In the Garden
In cool temperate climates, Narcissus (daffodils), Leucojum
(snowflakes) and Galanthus (snowdrops) are among the
most important spring-flowering bulbs in commerce. Elsewhere, in
warm temperate and subtropical climates, species of Amaryllis,
Nerine, and Zephyranthes
are the most popular choices for gardens and containers.
To find all the Amaryllidaceae listed on this site, please enter
Amaryllidaceae into the search box below
References and further reading
- Du Plessis, N. & Duncan, G.D. 1989. Bulbous plants of
southern Africa. A guide to their cultivation and propagation.
Tafelberg, Cape Town.
- Loubser, J. & Zietsman, P.C. 1994. Rock painting of postulated
Brunsvigia sp. (Amaryllidaceae) at Thaba Bosiu, western Lesotho.
South African Journal of Science 90: 611, 612.
- Manning, J, Goldblatt, P. & Snijman, D. 2002. The color
encyclopedia of Cape bulbs. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.
- Meerow, A. & Snijman, D.A. 1998. Amaryllidaceae. In K. Kubitzki,
The families and genera of vascular plants 3: 83-110. Springer,
- Meerow, A.W., Fay, M.F., Chase, M.W., Guy, C.L., Li, Q-B.,?
Snijman, D. & Yang, S-Y. 2000. Phylogeny of Amaryllidaceae:
Molecules and morphology. In K. Wilson & D. Morrison, Monocots:
systematics and evolution: 368-382. CSIRO, Melbourne.
- Paterson-Jones, C. & Snijman, D. 1996. Dramatically different-winter
rainfall amaryllids. Africa-Environment & Wildlife
- Snijman, D.A. 2000. Amaryllidaceae. In O.A. Leistner, Seed plants
of southern Africa: families and genera. Strelitzia 10:
570-576. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
- Vargas, F.C. 1981. Plant motifs on Inca ceremonial vases from
Peru. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 82: 313-325.