The month of August always reminds me of naked ladies. How could it not? All of the sudden they’ve popped up, cotton candy trumpet blossoms — no shame, no suggestion of timidity — giggling and chattering with abandon atop two-foot-tall stems, not even covered by a wisp of modest foliage since their long and linear leaves appear only after the stem has flowered. Hence, the nakedness.
And if you fail to blush upon such exhibitionism, perhaps you are obliged to find this flower in the wild, for its scent is surely a bust. Lush and sugary, strong and floral, reminiscent of the near-sickly smell that ambushes one’s senses upon unfolding a virgin vinyl shower curtain and it off-gassing up the entire house, or half-a-dozen brown sugar and butter pies almost out of the oven with their newly melded sweet and salty qualities creating one supreme desert entity. It’s almost too much.
Amaryllis belladonna is native to the Cape Floral Kingdom of South Africa, a crescent-shaped sliver running along Atlantic coast about 150 miles and along the Indian Ocean coast for about 200, extending inland for about 75. It makes sense, then, that it’s also found throughout central coastal California, as both regions have that Mediterranean climate characterized by long, dry summers and mild, wet winters. (By the way, the exploration of the plants in such regions was one of the primary, original purposes behind Phyte Club.)
The Cape Floral Kingdom is mind-bogglingly biodiverse: It is the world’s richest floristic province yet also the smallest, home to about 8,550 species (contrast this with Cali’s still impressive 5000-plus native plant species within an area about four times as large). Many South African natives are geophytes (“earth plants”), referring to their underground structures like bulbs, corms, or tubers, and have evolved to thrive in the nutrient poor, old soils of the region. Naked ladies emerge from a bulb and, as those who’ve noticed them growing in the heart of summer in vacant lots or dry patches of dirt along the sidewalk can attest, happily survive in any soil with no summer water.