Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont
Although poinsettias remain number one in popularity for holiday plants, another plant that you’ll find commonly during late fall and winter is the amaryllis. It’s usually sold either in bloom or bulb ready to pot, is a fast grower, has a long bloom period, and requires minimal care. This makes it a perfect choice for beginners or those without “green thumbs”, but its beauty is appreciated by even the more advanced gardeners.
The large trumpet flower resembles a lily, although it is not a member of that family but is a tropical bulb, originally imported from Central and South America. What we usually call an amaryllis (said as am-ar-ILL-iss) or Dutch amaryllis (since most of these hybrids were bred there) is actually a different genus (Hippeastrum). The true amaryllis, or Belladonna lily, that you may find in specialty catalogs or stores originally came from South Africa. Since either of these do not tolerate frost, they must be flowered indoors. Although the normal flowering season for the Dutch amaryllis is January through April, many greenhouses force it into bloom earlier to be ready for the December holidays.
Amaryllis (the Dutch hybrids) most commonly found include red, pink or salmon, whites, and bicolors of red and white. You may be able to find some miniature varieties at complete garden stores, or through mail order and online catalogs. These smaller plants grow to only a foot or so high and have smaller flowers, but otherwise look like the traditional ones.
Many amaryllis plants are sold already potted. All you do for these is to just add water. The larger the bulbs, the more likely you will have multiple flower stalks. You can make a plant flower for a special occasion by starting it five to seven weeks before the selected date.
If you buy bulbs separately instead of pre-potted, or in kits complete with soil and pot ready to assemble, store them in a cool and dry location if you need to hold them for later potting or giving as gifts. Although these will keep for long periods, if sprouts start to develop you’ll need to plant them as soon as possible. Be careful not to expose the bulbs to freezing conditions.
Pot bulbs in containers just slightly wider than the bulb, such as a 5 to 6-inch wide pot. There should be about an inch between the bulb and side of the pot. Or, you may want to put three bulbs in a 10 to 12-inch wide container. Amaryllis grow best if slightly crowded. Use a standard houseplant potting medium– one containing a large amount of peat moss and no soil. Pot at a depth so the top third (the “neck”) of the bulb is exposed. The potting mix should end up about a half inch to inch below the pot rim. This allows space for watering.
A good way to not overwater (they don’t like to be waterlogged) is through sub-irrigation with warm water. Do this by filling a pot saucer or tray underneath, then letting the soil absorb the water. After 30 minutes, discard any water that remains in the saucer. From this point until flowering stems are a couple inches high, water sparingly—only when the top inch or so of the potting mix feels dry—perhaps once a week. Watering too frequently or too much can cause the bulb to rot. Also when watering, make sure and use water that is slightly warm.
Put the freshly potted bulb in a warm location above 60 degrees (68 to 75 degrees F is ideal—remember these are tropical). Near a heat vent or wood stove (not on the woodstove), or on top of a refrigerator are good locations. Place your amaryllis in a warm location that gets about 4 hours of direct sun daily, such as south-facing window. When the flower bud stalk is about eight inches tall, you can place the pot in a cooler location if you want to slow growth. When the first bud is about to open, keeping cooler (such as 50 to 60 degrees) will prolong the bloom period. Warmer temperatures speed up and cause earlier flowering.
Since bulbs are self-contained packages, containing much food for the season, they don’t need much fertilizer. You may fertilize lightly—about half strength of your normal houseplant fertilizer– every couple weeks, especially while the plant is in bloom.
After your amaryllis has bloomed, don’t throw them out! You can save the bulbs to reflower in subsequent years. Start by removing the flowers as they fade. Continue to water the potted bulb regularly throughout the spring and summer. Apply liquid fertilizer, according to label directions. After all danger of frost is past in the spring, you can plant the bulb, pot and all, in the garden in a semi-shaded spot. Don’t place in full sun or the leaves may “burn” and turn brown.
Next September, take the potted amaryllis out of the garden before the first frost, and place it in a dry, warm place. Stop fertilizing and water less. Leaves should start dying back, at which point you can cut them off. Place the pots in a cool, dark place, and leave them alone. If you use the crisper drawer of a refrigerator or cool cellar, make sure they are not stored with apples (these give off ethylene gas that may prevent bloom).
Bulbs are dormant and need a rest for at least six weeks. Check weekly, and later in the fall when you see a new shoot emerging, start watering and treating as when you first got them— keep crowded in their pots, don’t overwater, give minimal fertilizer, keep warm, and give bright light (preferably direct sun) at least half a day.
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