Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History (1979) 9 (3): 251-256
´┐ŻArchives of Natural History

Amaryllis belladonna and the Guernsey lily: an overlooked clue
W. L. Tjaden

Between 1930 and 1954 there occurred probably the best-known dispute on the application of a plant name.1 It started with the assertion by an American botanist, J. C. Th. Uphof, that the relevant entry in Linnaeus's Species Plantarum, 1753, applied not in its generally long accepted sense to a bulbous plant from the Cape of Good Hope, but to a generically distinct although superficially similar Central and South American plant, long known as Hippeastrum equestre, or more recently with a prior epithet as H. puniceum. If Uphof's contention had been accepted, the name Hippeastrum would have been replaced by Amaryllis and the Cape plant would have become known as Brunsvigia rosea.

The generic name Hippeastrum was published by William Herbert in 1821 and was soon adopted by most botanists. At that time it comprised a number of the species of Linnaeus's wide genus Amaryllis. Herbert retained the Cape bulb as the type species of this genus under Linnaeus's name Amaryllis belladonna. Hippeastrum species, however, have always been of greater horticultural importance, being much hybridised in the 19th century to produce the showy spring-flowering greenhouse and house plants of commerce. As late as 1890 influential British gardeners protested against the substitution of Hippeastrum for Amaryllis as the generic name of these hybrids. 'Are we wrong', said Harry Veitch 'in continuing to call these grand flowers after the name of the Virgilian nymph, and should we therefore drop the pleasing appellative with which they have been almost indissolubly connected from our earliest memory, and substitute the rougher Hippeastrum for the softer Amaryllis?'2 While British horticulture accepted Hippeastrum from that time, the bulb trade did not. Each autumn the bulbs are still exported from Holland in boxes labelled 'Amaryllis (Hippeastrum)'.

The reason why Uphof's challenge to long-established usage was made only comparatively recently, lies in the fact that Linnaeus's contemporaries and the following generations of botanists accepted his innovation of binomial names, but did not spend the time investigating the literal meaning of each of his names, nor did they go back to his definitions in his first general use of binomials in 1753. Only in the present century has the ad hoc scrutiny of these binomials taken place.3 It is not therefore altogether surprising to find that Uphof apparently had much in favour of his contention. The synonyms and statement of habitat quoted for Amaryllis belladonna all identify it with the American bulb, Hippeastrum equestre, not the Cape bulb. A former Keeper of Kew Herbarium, O. Staph, had indeed written in 1929 that none of Linnaeus's species of Amaryllis in 1753 was 'identifiable with our, that is, Herbert's Amaryllis belladonna'.4

It might therefore have been better to have relied on established usage, and to have ignored Uphof's paper. In 1939, however, his conclusion was challenged by J. R. Sealy supported by several British botanists. He asserted that Linnaeus's short description or phrase-name applied only to the Cape plant and that there was a herbarium specimen of the Cape plant (Figure 1) on which Linnaeus presumably relied, but none of the American plant. It was admitted there was no evidence that Linnaeus had actually studied this specimen. Linnaeus took his 1753 entry almost intact from one he had made in Hortus Cliffortianus (1738), a sumptuous account of the plants and herbarium specimens owned by his then employer, George Clifford, a Dutch banker. At the end of his five entries under the new name Amaryllis, which replaced the existing 'Lilio-narcissus', Linnaeus stated that "The flowers of this genus are very beautiful: I do not know that the second species has an equal...despite its bitter root it is called Amaryllis instead of Amarella by certain gardeners'. This second species was the one he later called Amaryllis belladonna.

Basing himself on this statement, Sealy pointed out that the species concerned must have been fairly well-known in cultivation, since it had already received the name Amaryllis in gardens, and Linnaeus had said it was outstandingly beautiful. He contended that 'Both remarks apply to the Cape Belladonna - no one would dispute that its flowers are exceedingly beautiful, and it was certainly well-known in gardens in Linnaeus's time...but one could scarcely claim that Hippeastrum equestre had no equal in beauty of flowers, and it was certainly not well-known in cultivation in Linnaeus's day, in fact it was very rare.'5 Uphof rejected this contention, but neither he nor his supporters noticed a telling piece of bibliographical evidence.

While 'belladonna' was the second species under Amaryllis in Hortus Cliffortianus, the first was the Guernsey lily, named Amaryllis sarniensis in 1753. In the early 1700s it was grown in and exported from Guernsey on a considerable scale. James Douglas published a detailed of 'the Guernsay Lilly' in 1725 and a lengthier second edition in 1737.6, 23 'Whoever', he wrote,'will but give themselves the trouble to walk out to Hoxton in the months of September or October and view it in Mr. Fairchild's garden, in its full prime and beauty, will readily agree that it richly deserves to be taken pains about...I therefore heartily invite all lovers of flowers to the culture of the Gurensay Lilly, the great Empress of the whole flowery world, I am sure the noblest plant that England can boast of...'.7 Douglas noted that Richard Bradley, our first horticultural journalist, agreed with this opinion, saying that it 'had hardly its equal for beauty among the flowering race'.8

In the catalogue of Clifford's botanical works in Hortus Cliffortianus Linnaeus entered 'No. 61 Douglas, James—Lilium sarniense 1725 fol. angl. p. 35 t. 2—Docte describit Amaryllidem 2dam', not 'primam' to agree with the actual place occupied by the Guernsey lily in the text. Thus, Linnaeus had reversed the intended order of his first two species, but failed to alter the catalogue entry for Douglas's monograph. The immediate inference is that the footnote referring to the unequalled beauty of the second species was meant for the Guernsey lily, not for the 'Belladonna'. Not only was Bradley's work quoted above, catalagued as in Clifford's library, but so was Bradley's Dictionarium Botanicum of 1728 in which he noted that 'the Guernsey Lilly in my opinion excells all other flowers for beauty'. These words follow immediately after 'the Belladonna from Portugal or Damascus Lilly which besides its beautiful flower is very sweet scented', so Bradley's preference for the Guernsey lily over the Cape belladonna is clear.9 This was, indeed, the first mention in English horticultural literature of the Cape plant as 'Belladonna.' In 1731 Philip Miller devoted two columns to the cultivation of the Guernsey lily in his Gardeners Dictionary, but only a third to the American plant later named Hippeastrum equestre.10 He noted the large annual exports from Guernsey, and stated that 'the flowers of this plant will continue in beauty if rightly manag'd a full month, and though they have no scent for the richness of their colour they are justly esteem'd in the front rank of the flowering race'. Of the 'Belladonna' from Portugal, Miller's seventh sort of Lilio-narcissus in several editions, he said that 'the flowers of this plant are always produced about the same time as the Guernsey Lilly but are not near so beautiful'. There can be no doubt therefore that Linnaeus was enthusing about the Guernsey lily. He had met Miller in 1736 and respected him as an outstanding gardener. Had his praise really been intended for either the Cape or the American belladonnas he would have had to state a disagreement with the eminent gardeners to make such a view credible to informed readers. His statement reads, in fact, like a borrowed opinion. Linnaeus produced the large Hortus Cliffortianus in record time, and it would have been quicker in the winter of 1736-1737 when he wrote most of it, to copy from books that he believed reliable, than to reconcile dried specimens with the literature or rely on his memory, good although that was.11

There being no evidence that Linnaeus used the specimen of the Cape plant in the Clifford herbarium, the argument that he was describing it in 1738 and hence in 1753, but confused himself with the literature relating to the American plant, rested on the contention that his phrase-name, Amaryllis spatha multiflora, corollis campanulatis aequalibus, genitalibus declinatis. could apply to the Cape plant only. The phrase-name was, however, only a short general description and the contention cannot be sustained. The words used in it were used in a broader sense in the eighteenth century than they are today. The name itself was indeed applied by Linnaeus's contemporaries to Hippeastrum equestre. Thus Patrick Browne cited it as a synonym for his 'Flore croce nutante scapo nudo unifloro' in the account of Jamaican plants he published in 1756: H. equestre grows in the West Indies as well as the Guianas and may have very few flowers on a scape.12 'Sir' John Hill used the phrase-name as a synonym for another Hippeastrum, H. reginae.13 Fusée Aublet applied the name and quoted 'Belladonna' as the epithet for H. equestre in his account of French Guiana plants in 1775.14 A sketch by the artist G. D. Ehret of H. equestre made in the 1740s is entitled with the phrase-name, after one referring to the Cape plant.15

It may be wondered how Linnaeus came to choose the epithet 'Belladonna' for H. equestre. His main authority was the botanist Paul Hermann (1646-1695) who mistakenly called it 'Lilium Americanum puniceo flore, Bella donna dictum'.16 Hermann had no support for the last two words, and was unaware, as was Linnaeus, that the Italians, around Florence especially, who had grown the Cape plant since early in the seventeenth century for cut flowers, had called it 'Donna Bella.'17 When the English took to growing the Cape plant, at first in greenhouses, probably not much before 1720, its Italian and Portuguese popular name came with it and it was soon known as the belladonna lily.18 When Philip Miller adopted Linnaean phrase-names in the 1750s for his Dictionary, he simply assumed that Linnaeus had described the Cape plant because it was better known and was the 'Belladonna' of gardeners.19 Later, the phrase-name was even attributed to Miller, no doubt to get round the difficulty posed by the irrelevant synonyms. When Amaryllis equestris was published in 1789 (A. punicea was published in 1783 but did not get the same publicity) the way was clear to accept A. belladonna for the Cape plant with the exclusion of the synonyms.26 In 1837 William Herbert gave the following fanciful account,21 persuading himself that Linnaeus had really intended the Cape plant:—

It was the exquisite blending of pink and white in that flower, as in the female complexion, that suggested the common name in Italy, and to those lovely tints Linnaeus referred, when he assigned to it the name of a beautiful woman. To suppose he would have alluded to a bright orange flower would be perfectly absurd. It is therefore quite indisputable that Belladonna is the type of the Linnaean genus Amaryllis, and it would be an idle insult to the memory of Linnaeus to remove it without any cause.

Alas, it was Dean Herbert who was being 'perfectly absurd.' If the Cape plant is intended when Amaryllis belladonna is mentioned, it would be accurate to quote 'L'Heritier non Linn' as author, L'Heritier being the first to apply the name unequivocally to the Cape plant.22 This paper, however, is not concerned with proposing changes in plant names.

I have not traced the source of Linnaeus's remark that some gardeners had called the Guernsey lily, Amaryllis. It may have been the comment of Dutch gardeners. In the second, enlarged edition (1729) of his monograph, James Douglas stated23 that it was given to the Botanick Professor' at Leyden by a Guernsey student. This Professor was Pieter Hotton, who died in 1709. Douglas said that he had given a public lecture on the plant in consequence of the gift and that the Guernsey lily had thriven in the Netherlands in a number of gardens. M. la Cour an ingenious gardener and nurseryman in that city (Leyden) has a great number of them in flower every season.'


1 DANDY, J. E., & FOSBERG, F. R., 1954. The type of Amaryllis belladonna L. Taxon 3: 231-232. This, the last paper in the dispute, lists the preceding papers.
2 VEITCH, H., 1890. The Hippeastrum (Amaryllis) J. Roy. Hort. Soc. 12: 243f.
3 The international Botanical Congress held at Vienna in 1905 agreed that 1753 should be the starting point for plant hames. It has, however, always been left to individuals to propose changes in plant names on the alleged grounds that they do not conform to the Code of Nomenclature as approved and amended at each Congress. The Amaryllis belladonna dispute is the only one so far argued at a Congress, and that was done in a special committee, not in full session of the relevant nomenclatural committee.
4 STAPF, O., 1929. X Crinodonna corsi, footnote. Curtis Bot. Mag. t.9162.
5 SEALY, J. R., 1939. Amaryllis and Hippeastrum. Bull. Misc. Inf. Kew: 54.
6 HENREY, B., 1975. Nos. 662, 663. British botanical & horticultural literature 3: 36. London.
7 DOUGLAS, J., 1725. Lilium sarniense: or a description of the Gurensay-lilly: 30. London.
8 BRADLEY, R., 1717. Lilio-narcissus. New improvements of planting and gardening. London.
9 The name, Damascus Lily, did not persist. It may be due to the importation of the bulb on a Levant (Turkey) Company galley returning from Acre or Iskenderum, but calling at Leghorn and possibly Lisbon for extra cargo.
10 MILLER, P., 1731. Lilio-narcissus. The Gardeners Dictionary Ed. I.
11 BLUNT, W., 1971. The compleat naturalist, London, and STEARN, W. T., 1957. An introduction to the Species Plantarum &c, Ray Society, London, are the sources for accounts of Linnaeus's life and work. My statement, however, is my own inference.
12 BROWNE, P., 1756. The civil and natural history of Jamaica: 195. London.
13 HILL, J., 1758. Outlines of a system of vegetable generation. London.
14 AUBLET, F., 1775. Histoire des plantes de la Guiane Francoise: 304. Londres.
15 CALLMAN, G., 1977. Ehret, flower painter extraordinary. Oxford. See plate 85.
16 HERMANN, P., 1689. Paradisus Batavi prodromus: 348 (produced with TOURNEFORT, J. P., Schola Botanica, by 'S. W. A.' (W. Sherard)). Also HERMANN, P., Patadisus Batavus: 194, with a good illustration called 'Lilium Bella Donna'.
17 Botanists relied on the Latin editions of FERRARI, G.B., 1633 (also 1646, 1664) De florum cultura libri IV, which gave a passable illustration of the Cape Belladonna and a poetical but convincing account of its flowering, with no mention of 'Donna Bella'. The Italian edition, 1638, Flora, overa cultura di fiori: 118, 377 and Index (p. Yyy) alone gave this common name ('e chiamasi da alcuni Donna bella'). Herman noted in Paradisus Batavus (Note 16) that his "Lilium Americanum...' came from the Caribbean isles, and that it was hitherto unknown to him. There is no earlier record of H. equestre being called Bella Donna or Donna Bella: later authors quoted Hermann. He was a painstaking botanist and if he had known of the Italian common name he would not have used it. He was presumably misled by Dutch gardeners at that time unfamiliar with the Cape plant.
18 BRADLEY, R., 1728. Lilio-narcissus in Dictionarium Botanicum, 2, and ANON. (text by Bradley?) 1732. No. XIX Belladonna Lily in The flower garden display'd...from designs by Mr. Furber...
19 MILLER, P., 1752 Amaryllis, 5th species in Gardeners Dictionary, 6th edition.
20 AITON, W., 1789. Amaryllis Belladonna, 9th species in Hortus Kewensis.
21 HERBERT, W., 1837. Amaryllidaceae: 144-145.
22 L'HERITIER, C. L., 1788. Sertum Anglicum: 12.
23 DOUGLAS, J., 1737, A description of the Guernsay lilly. The second edition: 19. London, second issue. It has recently been shown by BROCK, C. H. (J. Soc. Biblphy nat. Hist. (1979) 9: 139) that the first issue of the second edition was in 1729.