The Ugliest Thing I Ever Planted

Sometimes the glory we hope to see is found where we least expect it.

If all I had known of the amaryllis plant was its bulb, I am sure I would never have potted one at all.

But first impressions matter, and my first impression of an amaryllis was rich color and diamond sparkle and my own astonishment. We had lived in our seashell-stuccoed Florida house for just a few months when I cut through our narrow side yard and noticed the kind of spectacular reddish-pink flower I had only ever seen on a Christmas card. What was it doing blooming its head off in this slightly shady patch near my neighbor’s orange tree? Granted, I was a new Florida resident, and the orange tree, with its pendulous green globes, imparted an equal measure of wonder.

Such marvels can grow from the ground only in very particular climates. People who live in real winter weather must content themselves with indoor gardening. This is difficult where orange trees are concerned but quite manageable in the case of the amaryllis. The advantage to this indoor gardening is that the gardener, and not the weather, controls the timing of the bloom, and amaryllis bulbs are often “forced” to bloom for the winter holidays. So on a gray November day, a few years after trading Florida seashells for Pennsylvania brick, I found myself standing in our kitchen holding a great, dirty bulb. It trailed fleshy roots the way an octopus trails arms.

By this point, I had lived in Pennsylvania for a few years and was well acquainted with the usual fall-planted bulbs like daffodil and tulip and crocus. Those come shipped to me 50 to a net sack, like the bags holding onions from the grocery store. Spring-blooming bulbs are papery like onions and small—I can easily grab a handful of daffodil bulbs. An amaryllis bulb, however, is a two-fisted beast—as big as a softball. A bright light of fascinated horror shone in my young daughter’s eyes when she first spied it in my hands. We covered the monster in dirt, watered it, and placed it on our windowsill.

The history of this plant in the West is also ugly. Its introduction to Europe appears to have followed the same routes as the trade in sugarcane and slaves. The word amaryllis means “to sparkle,” but packed in crates in the dark holds of ships that also carried human cargo, it likely didn’t shed much light. So my experience of the amaryllis’s transcendent sparkle has its roots in the dirty muck of sinful human history and the fresh filth of my flowerpot. Yet for several winters in a row, I’ve watched as water and winter sunshine awaken a bulb that looks as dead as stone.

For several winters, I’ve watched as water and winter sunshine awaken a bulb that looks as dead as stone.

The name amaryllis is also linked to the Greek tale of a shepherdess who shed her own blood to prove her love. This is the story I remember each time I place our blooming amaryllis in the center of our dining-room table at Christmastime. The Greek shepherdess foreshadows our own Great Shepherd. And what was the world’s first impression of Christ? A mother pregnant well before her wedding, an animal feed trough, a small and vulnerable infant. The mystery of the gospel was revealed to us in flesh that would bleed for us, yes—but that flesh came barefoot and caked with dust. It was not a good first impression, and if I had passed the scene on a dusty road in Bethlehem, I may not have looked twice.

When the amaryllis bulb finally erupts with new life, the sight is astonishing but not exactly beautiful. A pale green stalk, the color of celery and the shape of a sword, pushes itself up. One inch, then two, it is six inches high before you know it. When the flower opens a few weeks later, what was once hidden is finally revealed. And what is revealed is the kind of beauty that drops your jaw and stops your tracks. You cannot help but look twice. And then go on looking.

Occasionally, I drop my spent amaryllis bulbs in the compost bin once their Christmas blooms are finished, but I have a few favorites I coddle in my cool basement in order to coax them into bloom year after year. If anything, the bulbs have only grown uglier, but I no longer shudder when I handle them. Instead, I feel affection born of the care I have lavished on them and the faith I have in the beauty of their flowers.

I have always wondered why such a glory and a gift as Immanuel didn’t simply appear, a fully grown God-man, trailing rainbows rather than dust. Would that have helped us recognize Him? Perhaps not. We might have needed to see something more mysterious. Maybe we needed to witness the mystery of heavenly glory emerging from the dust of earth.

Related Topics:  Humility

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