The big, red blowsy amaryllis has positioned itself as a holiday bloom, but I’m with Christian Curless, a horticulturist who raises and sells this Samson of flowering bulbs.
Dutch-grown bulbs are hard-pressed to flower in time for the holidays because of the way their internal clock has been reworked; amaryllis hails from the Southern Hemisphere.
“Our argument is that there’s enough color at Christmas,” he said. “When we need color is on the other side of Christmas when the darkness descends and you’re facing many weeks before spring comes.”
So it’s good, indeed preferable, to get the gift of an amaryllis bulb for the season but then to forge a private communion with the emerging bloom in the gray stillness of January. If you are worried that someone may forget to present you with one, do what I did. Treat yourself. There are no true yellow bloomers, but I was drawn to one that approximates that hue, called Lemon Star. I find beefy red amaryllis to be old hat, and I could somehow carry on living contentedly if I never saw another bloom of Red Lion.
There are three basic ways to acquire amaryllis. The easiest and also most expensive is to buy one that is already potted and starting to grow. The second is to buy a boxed kit, containing some potting soil, a bulb and a pot. These can be quite inexpensive, and not without reason if the bulb is on the small side, the potting mix is basic and the pot is of cheap plastic. Still, they will do the trick.
The third way is to buy loose bulbs from the cardboard bins at garden centers, mass merchandisers and other retailers. One advantage to getting one this way is that you can tart it up by placing its growing pot in a high-end cache pot and add moss as a classy mulch. Another plus to getting a bare bulb is that you can examine it for firmness and health before buying and to catch one in an optimum stage of development. I like to see just the emerging tip of the flower bud.
At places I’ve visited this week, I found an alarming number of bare bulbs with flowering stems, or scapes, that are too far along. Some are even in full bloom. Why share your purchase with other shoppers? If you found one with a budded scape halfway grown, it would give you enough time to take it home (very carefully), pot it up, allow the scape to gather itself vertically, and bloom in a week or two. I’d still go with the more nascent stem.
Most bulbs of flowering size will produce sequentially two and perhaps three scapes, each with four blooms perfectly opposed. Often, the leaves will appear after blooming, but they look better emerging at blossom time.
The most common mistake with amaryllis is over-watering, which will rot the bulb. “A lot of people think you should water it to get it going, but the best treatment is to water it when you first start it and then wait until you see the leaves emerge,” said Jim Harbage, floriculture leader at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa.
Watering should increase as the leaves develop, which is when the roots start to grow, said Curless, who works for Colorblends, a bulb importer based in Bridgeport, Conn.
The most common problem is that the flower scapes stretch so high that the whole plant becomes top-heavy and topples, with catastrophic results.
How do you prevent this?
If you can start the plant in a warm spot - at least 70 degrees - this will encourage the leaves to form with the flower scapes. It is not until the leaves begin to form that the new roots grow into the soil, Curless said, and the roots will anchor the amaryllis. Gardeners who have electric heat mats for seed starting could grow their bulbs with this bottom heat.
A warm start will also hasten the time it takes for the amaryllis to grow and flower, and also help prevent the flower scapes from over-extending.
Once the flower buds are plump, the amaryllis can be moved to a cooler area, to prolong the bloom period.
The other major cause of stretched stalks is insufficient light. The pot should be placed in a sunny room, close to a window. Rotate the pot 90 degrees daily to prevent leaning.
After flowering, you can either toss the plant or try to keep it going to the next year. The latter requires a regimen of care.
As far north as Tidewater Virginia, you can plant amaryllis bulbs in the garden, where they'll flower in May. This isn’t an option in colder zones where they are grown as houseplants.
After flowering, cut off the entire flower scape, but not the leaves. Water (and feed lightly with a balanced liquid fertilizer), and when April comes, after the last frost, you can move the amaryllis into a slightly larger pot with fresh potting mix to be grown outdoors until the fall. Critically, the plant should be hardened off in the spring against sun and wind. This is done over a 10-to-14-day period when the amaryllis is gradually moved from a sheltered, shady spot to a more open area. Even after that step, it is best to keep the plant out of afternoon sunlight to avoid leaf scorching, Curless said. Interestingly, about 1 in 5 of his amaryllis reblooms in the summer.
Around the time of the first frost in the fall, remove the plants from their pots and lay them on newspapers in an outside, dry area - a screened porch is good - for the soil and roots to dry off. Curless then stores them in the basement, where the bulbs get a rest period and the foliage withers. Trim old leaves and roots before repotting for winter flowering indoors.
Bulb expert and retailer Brent Heath of Gloucester, Va., induces the rest period by tipping pots on their side in September, leaving them alone for two months before starting them again.
Connoisseurs such as Heath and Curless prefer smaller flowering amaryllis, though you may have to scramble to find them. Heath commends a series from South Africa named Sonatina, whose varieties are smaller but more floriferous. Curless likes Rapido, which is another small-flowered but floriferous amaryllis, in a rich crimson red. Heath’s company, Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, has some of the Sonatina hybrids left for this winter, but Curless’ firm has finished shipping for the season.
Even with the care, sometimes an amaryllis that has been kept from one year to the next refuses to bloom. Be prepared for the disappointment. “What we find with amaryllis,” Curless said, “is that they have a mind of their own.”