back to the Black Table

With fewer than 15 shopping days until Kwanzaa, the pressure is on to find the perfect gift/decoration for your multi/culti home/office environment to show that you're down.

Buy some amaryllis -- it's the perfect flowering plant gift for Kwanzaa, which stretches post-Christmas festivities through to New Year's for everyone not going to Aspen or Vermont.

You already know what it is. Amaryllis is that plant with the pale-green phallic spear you see in pots at florist shops, or in boxed kits on K-Mart shelves. While it might not seem like much in the box, when in bloom, the amaryllis has blossoms of pink, white, and pastel peach, bright red, or deep, velvety burgundy-maroon. Each of


those burgeoning sprouts on the gnarly bulbs piled in bins at a garden store can produce five or six flowers, each as big as your hand.

Unlike Kwanzaa, which was created by a California professor in 1966 and later hijacked by Hallmark, amaryllis literally has roots in Africa's past and has a colonial lineage to boot. The plant's parent species is Hippeastrum reginae, a native West African wildflower, which was crossed with related South American amaryllids, notably H. aulicum which hails from Brazil. Nineteenth-century Dutch gardeners created the spectacular hybrids known today.

In the Victorian nomenclature of flowers, amaryllis means "pride" and the red varieties carry the three colors associated with Kwanzaa: red (flowers), green (stems and leaves) and black (nectaries and the


dark bulb). Bright gold stamens add the finishing touch, a perfect match to kente-cloth table linens. While many bulbs are imported from Holland, prestigious mail-order nurseries such as Jackson Perkins now make it a point to mention they're getting their stock direct from South Africa.

Amaryllis might get also an accepting nod from Dr. Maulana Karenga, who fabricated Kwanzaa out of whole cloth (not just kente cloth) while teaching at California State University in Long Beach. Drawing from a general tradition of pan-African harvest festivals, Dr. Karenga's African-American version borrows a bit from Christmas (gift-giving) and Chanuka (candle-lighting) but is meant neither to be


"political or religious" nor a "substitute for Christmas," according to the official Kwanzaa website.

In the post-civil rights, pre-prime time era, Kwanzaa was popularized but often assumed to be an old-world African holiday. But after "The Cosby Show" shattered corporate America's notion of the black family, Hallmark and American Greetings began to mine Kwanzaa's new world prospects for holiday cards, gifts, coordinating paper plates and napkins -- and of course holiday e-cards.

Dr. Karenga, who still chairs the Black Studies department at CSU Long Beach, seems of mixed mind about this. His corrective website inveighs against the "commercialization" of Kwanzaa -- but also includes a transcript of his 1997 speech for the U.S. Postal Service touting the first Kwanzaa-themed postage stamp. (Apparently even Uncle Sam can adhere to at least two of the seven Kwanzaa principles -- Kuumba, or creativity, and Ujamaa, or cooperative economics.)

It's not official, but perhaps a trend is in order -- amaryllis as the perfect flower for Kwanzaa.

Fortunately for gardeners who may be only figuratively black-thumbed, prepotted amaryllis kits are foolproof, and require only infrequent watering and space near a sunny window to bloom in 4 to 6 weeks. Freestanding bulbs, showing those spear-like buds or unopened flowers, can be set into water, potting soil or clean aquarium gravel, leaving the top third of the bulb visible above the soil or water line. If you're buying an amaryllis in full bloom, it will last 2 to 3 weeks in a cool room, and, if faded blossoms are cut, may launch a second spike of flowers to color your world until Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when the bulbs will disappear from the stores altogether.



Mia Amato has written two books about gardening, The Garden Explored and A Yardscapes Year: Ideas and Plants for Bay Area Gardens, which, by today's lax standards, make her an unassailable expert on flowers.