The yellow tulips I admired glowing alongside a steely lake in Norway last month reminded me of the day I first fell in love with hippeastrums, seeing them flowering deep red against an ochre wall. It took me a while to work out why. The circumstances couldn’t have been more different: cool damp Norway in early spring, and hot dry Dural in early summer. I finally realised it was the contrast of brilliant colours in both scenes that made the memory snap. Tulips and hippies are equals in colour saturation and both offer a dazzling spring performance in the garden.
Gardeners experimenting with tulips this spring will have planted their chilled bulbs; gardeners looking to try hippies can order bulbs now for immediate planting and flowers from October into summer. The glowing, dark red tones are startling, particularly seen against dark foliage or painted walls, but there are other options too, primarily in variations of red, pink and white with or without feathering, striping, shading and edging.
The bulbs look like oversized onions and like to be planted with their neck poking out of the soil. They want a sunny position and won’t handle frosts, coming as they do from the subtropical and tropical regions of South America, primarily Brazil. The scapes appear from the side of the bulb, and a big bulb will produce a couple of flowering spikes, each with a few flowers. These are big and bold, and shrug off Sydney’s variable spring weather. They will naturalise to form a large clump and are not much bothered by pests and diseases, which is why they are so often seen thriving in neglected gardens, though snails need to be kept away from the developing flower spikes. They also make dramatic displays in pots and like to be potbound, so should be crammed in tight. They can be brought indoors while in flower.
An English watchmaker called Arthur Johnson did the first hybridising work on hippies in the late 18th century, and they are now bred around the world, including on the Sunshine Coast hinterland where Mick and Nellie Maguire have been growing hippies for 25 years on a former pineapple plantation. The new varieties being introduced by breeders are ever more complex, with double flowers, ruffled petals and picotee edges but I prefer the oldies. As well as a solid unnamed red, and a huge-flowered pink and white ‘Apple Blossom’ I grow one of the species hippies, Hippeastrum papilio. Sometimes called the butterfly hippie, this one features burgundy stripes on a green flower that never fully opens. The plant is evergreen and the best use of it I’ve seen was at Bronte House where Myles Baldwin had planted papilio through agapanthus. The flowers of papilio appear in October, and are over before the agapanthus erupts. The agapanthus disguised the somewhat untidily lounging foliage of the hippeastrum and allowed all the attention to be taken by the amazing flowers.