The sturdy amaryllis in her dining room window is a storehouse of memories for 83-year-old Pencie B. Willis. At age 51, the healthy, green houseplant has survived her husband, Norton; her daughter, Shirley; and her best childhood friend, Ketulah Poole.

Perched on a window radiator beside two teenage African violets, the old-timer has multiplied six times, worn out six trays and consumed barrels of water in its lifetime. It has also been a stalwart companion.

"It's just as pretty and green as anything," said a beaming Willis, admiring its long, green stalks. "I hope nothing will hurt it as long as I live."

Horticulturist Pam Marshall, of the extension service of the University of the District of Columbia, said it's "exceptional" for an amaryllis to live so long, susceptible as it is to fungi.

"When you think about it, that's longer than an average tree survives in Washington, D.C., which is about 20 to 40 years," Marshall said.

Its story began back in 1939, when Poole sent Willis the magical bulb from her garden in Yanceyville, N.C.

"My mother had a beautiful garden and was collecting flowers," recalled Poole's daughter, Margaret. "She gave the bulbs to {Willis} because she just loved those flowers."

And "I named it Ketulah after she passed," Willis said. "We played together for 75 years. We went to church, playgrounds and picnics together. I'm so happy I have something to remember her by."

For the first few years of the plant's life, while Willis was busy with babies, her brother-in-law, Coy Willis, who was living with the family, fed and watered the amaryllis until he went off to war. While her husband supported the family delivering kitchen supplies for the next decade, Willis stayed at home raising two children, working as a seamstress and nursing her bulbs until they blossomed a second year, a third and then a fourth.

Over time, Ketulah has become part heirloom, part family pet. "It's been in three wedding pictures," Willis recalled, reaching for her photo album. It survived one move. Lived through three wars, 10 U.S. presidents.

"It's pretty terrific that someone kept it growing that long," said Phil Herbert, of The Third Day, a plant store in Dupont Circle. "You know how people are today. If it is blooming, wonderful. But then, God forbid it stops."

Actually, Ketulah has never stopped blooming, Willis said. Every Christmas, 68 blossoms, never more, never less. Now the whole Willis clan drops by to get Ketulah's bulblets, and they keep an unofficial who-can-keep-this-plant-growing-the-longest contest.

Willis relies on no chemical inducements, hormones, high-performance plant food, or vitamins. Her method is simple: water, a sunny east window and plenty of carbon dioxide. "I talk to it every day," she said.

Oh, she admits to having picked up some tips from the Star magazine "in the 1950s, when it used to have a gardening section once a week on how to grow different plants."

Today Willis, who has trouble walking, stays close to the window coaxing her young lilies and violets to grow as well. Outside, her back garden is a jungle of grapevines, apple trees, string beans and tomatoes.

This time of year, she takes her amaryllis out on the back porch to get some summer sunshine. And soon she will begin her yearly regimen of stripping back the fleshy green leaves, which by now are the size of celery stalks.

"I say to it every day, 'Why are you growing so large?' These people who gave this to me are passed away," Willis said. "As long as I can treasure it to grow, I'll keep this plant."