By Rita Lynn
Many see the promise of an impressive show of flowers when amaryllis bulbs appear in stores this time of year. Many of us have actually experienced their marvelous display after we have tended our bulbs for a few weeks. Those who have been successful in growing these flowers know that it takes very little effort to be rewarded with their beauty.
If we’re picky about nomenclature, we are not really talking about amaryllis, although even plant scientists had a hard time deciding what to call them. Only after some half a century of discussions did botanists at the 14th International Botanical Congress in 1987 decide our well-loved Christmas bulb should be placed in the genus Hippeastrum instead of Amaryllis. The Amaryllis genus, they noted, included a different group of plants with similar flowers, most notably Amaryllis belladonna. Amaryllis belladonna is known by several common names such as naked lady or surprise lily, but they are not the plants by the same common names that are hardy in this area. The natural habitat of the Amaryllis belladonna is South Africa, while the ancestors of our Hippeastrum bulbs are natives of South and Central America. To add to the confusion, both plants, as well as daffodils and the plants hardy to our area also called surprise lilies and naked ladies, Lycoris squamigera, are related. They all belong to the same botanical family, Amaryllidaceae. Perhaps then, to simplify matters, we could be bold enough to declare that “amaryllis” has become a common name for Hippeastrum.
Breeders began to develop our many Hippeastrum varieties as early as 1799 in England, and horticulturists were developing new hybrids in the U.S. by the mid 1800’s. The bulbs we buy now come from breeders primarily in the Netherlands, but also in South Africa, the U.S., Japan and Israel.
All that technical stuff aside, what’s the best way to have a beautiful floral show during the holidays? First of all, in the case of Hippeastrum bulbs, bigger is indeed better. The bigger the bulb, the more stalks and the more blossoms per stalk you will get. In addition to size, look for a bulb that is firm and dry and shows no signs of mold, decay or injury. The most common disease affecting amaryllis is a fungus called red blotch, and red marks on the inner layers of bulbs are an indication that the it is infected with this disease. Such bulbs should be avoided.
Most bulbs come with directions for planting. That information will tell you to plant your bulb in a well-draining potting mix high in organic matter, and to choose a container that has a hole for drainage and that is no more than one inch larger in diameter than the bulb. My experience has taught me that a heavy pot is best, to reduce the tendency of the pot to tip when the plant has reached its mature height and becomes top-heavy. Plant the bulb with the upper third to half of the bulb exposed. Firm the soil around the bulb, leaving an inch of space to the rim of the pot to allow for watering. After planting the bulb, water it thoroughly and set it in a sunny spot at room temperature. No fertilizer is needed until the bulb starts to grow, and it should be kept barely moist in this period. (Too much water before the bulb starts to grow may lead to its rotting, and too warm a location may encourage weak stalks and smaller flowers.) Once the bulb starts to grow, you can fertilize it regularly with a product high in phosphorus. Staking as the stalk grows is often necessary. With this care, you should have your beautiful flowers in six to eight weeks. If you move your plant out of direct sunlight once the buds have begun to show color, your dazzling display will last for days or even weeks.
When the blossoms fade, you can begin the process of nurturing the bulb to produce flowers again next year. Cut off the faded flower but leave the stalk until it turns yellow, because the stalk itself provides nutrients to the bulb. Also leave all the green leaves, water it when the top two inches of soil is dry, and continue to provide fertilizer. When all danger of frost is past, gradually acclimate the plant to outdoor living, eventually placing it, pot and all (roots are brittle, so removing the bulb from the pot is not recommended), in a location that gets at least six hours of sunlight a day. Continue to feed it with a well-balanced fertilizer monthly. Given this care, your hippeastrum will be building up nutrients for the next season’s flowers.
Before the first frost in fall, bring the bulb back inside. A dormancy period is not required, but you can control the time of blooming if you do provide this resting period. Don’t remove the leaves until they shrivel and dry, and place the plant in a dark, cool – 45-55 degrees is best – location, such as a basement or cool closet for 8-12 weeks. Inspect the plant regularly, and bring it out into the light when new growth appears. Even if you don’t see new growth after the dormancy period, bring the plant out into light 4-8 weeks before you want flowers. If you have nurtured several bulbs, you can move plants into the light at two week intervals for a succession of blooms to brighten the otherwise dull winter months.
Over the years, your bulbs will grow in diameter, and they may need to be repotted to accommodate this increase in size, but still keeping the pot only an inch larger than the bulb. Repotting is best done after the period of dormancy. This is also the time to remove any bulbils that have formed, if you want to propagate new plants. You can carefully remove these little bulbs from the mother bulb and start them in pots of their own. It will take several years for them to produce flowers, but you will then have plants of your own and more to give away. What better gift than a magnificent “amaryllis” in bloom!
“Growing and Caring for Amaryllis,” by Carl Hoffman and Mary Meyer, University of Minnesota, http://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/yard-garden/flowers/growing-and-caring-for-amaryllis
“Amaryllis, Hippeastrum,” http://wimastergardener.org/?q=Amaryllis
“Amaryllis,” by T. Ombrello, http://faculty.ucc.edu/biology-Ombrello/pow/amaryllis.htm
“Amaryllis,” by Kathie Carter, http://www.ucanr.org/sites/UrbanHort/files/80184.pdf
“Hippeastrum or Amaryllis: What’s the Difference?” http://www.funnyhowflowersdothat.co.uk/hippeastrum-or-amaryllis-what%E2%80%99s-difference
“Growing Amaryllis,” http://store.extension.iastate.edu/Product/Growing-Amaryllis-PDF