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Vallota speciosa

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Vallota speciosa is one of those species that has many aliases and a more than usually colourful history.  It is widely known as the 'Scarborough Lily' and in the USA also as the 'Fire Lily' or the 'George Lily'.

There is an interesting (and quite unverifiable) story behind its most common name 'Scarborough Lily'.  Tradition has it that a Dutch merchantman homeward bound from the Cape (the date seems to vary from the late 18th to the early 19th Century) ran into a storm in the North Sea and was driven ashore on the Yorkshire coast near Scarborough.  The vessel broke up, and in the time honoured manner, the cargo was looted by the locals.  It included a quantity of what looked rather like daffodil bulbs, but turned out to be a lot more interesting.  They found their way onto local windowsills and into local gardens and the bright scarlet late summer flowers (left) became a feature of the area.

The bulbs were certainly of South African origin, probably first collected at Matequar Kloof by Francis Masson & Carl Thunberg in 1773.  Carl Linnaeus the younger (1741 - 1783) classified the plant as Crinum speciosum, and in the late 19th. century Durand & Schintz re-classified it as Vallota speciosa, the name by which most people still know it.  Officially it is now referred to as Cyrtanthus elatus, though it has also been variously known as Vallota purpurea, Amaryllis purpurea or Cyrtanthus purpureus.

The plant clearly made an impact, for by the mid-nineteenth century it was considered sufficiently notable to be one of the species to be carved on the pillars of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Despite its common names, it is not a lily at all, but a member of the Amaryllidaceae - the Amaryllis/daffodil family. It's quite easy to grow: although not hardy, a cool greenhouse in winter is all the protection it needs and it will produce a show of brilliant scarlet trumpet-shaped flowers, usually in the late summer (in the UK).  It can be persuaded to flower at other times by withholding water and letting the plant go dormant, then starting it into growth again.  It sets seed quite readily and the bulbs produce lots of offsets, so it's easy to propagate.  There are also yellow, pink and white flowered variants available, though they lack the impact of the original scarlet.

Sometimes in a potful of bulbs, one will produce an odd flower out of season.  These make a good cut flower for the house - especially when they produce a satisfying "Ooh! What's that?" response from visitors.

Apart from the flowering season, Vallota is of a similar size and growth habit to the daffodil.  It bears several flowers (typically 4, but the author has known as many as 9), ca. 18 - 20" (45 - 50 cm) above the bulb on a hollow, leafless scape.  The leaves are slightly wider than those of the daffodil, and unless the bulbs are completely dried off, one or two leaves may persist through the winter.

Click here to see micrographs of open anther and stigma surface.