Knocked out by amaryllis

Jake the cat with HippeastrumJake isn’t usually this serene. He’s more often tearing around the garden or wrastlin’ with his brothers, Rufus and Eli, in the living room. I think the beautiful amaryllis has him gobsmacked.

My first amaryllis affected me much the same way. The big bulb was given to me by my Uncle Ren, my garden mentor, many decades ago, when they were so rare as to be almost nonexistent in my part of the world. Not like today, when every garden centre brings them in to be potted up for winter flowering indoors. (In tropical zones 9 or 10 they survive just fine right in the garden.)

They’re gorgeous, and well worth the investment (the best sell for about 20 bucks) because you can keep them from year to year for more blooms. Don’t even think of throwing them out! I did that with my first one because I was young and uninformed, but in the last few years I’ve wintered them over and had reasonable success getting them to bloom again (instructions follow) , although they’re never as spectacular as the year I bought them.

I buy mine from Dugald Cameron at www.gardenimport.com who sells beauties. Rather understandably, he thinks we should treat amaryllis bulbs as annuals and buy new ones every year.

“What better show can you get for 20 bucks?” he asks. He’s got a point–a good amaryllis bulb produces two flower stalks with at least four immense blooms each, and the stalks usually bloom subsequently, giving you three weeks or more of awesome flowers. That’s better than a (likely more costly) florist’s arrangement. Just look at what Jake’s looking at to see what I mean, or at the cultivars below. And please note the rather tumescent-looking stalk emerging from the soil in the Jake picture–it produced a second and equally impressive quartet of flowers.

Hippeastrum Rio Negro

Hippeastrum ‘Rio Negro’

So what is an amaryllis, anyway? “We only see the tip of the iceberg. There’s a huge family out there.,” says Dugald. No kidding…about 90 species and more than 600 cultivars in the family Amaryllidaceae, including Amaryllis belladonna, the almost wild “naked lady” that grows in South Africa. There’s also uncertainty over whether the family originated in South Africa or South America, or both, and confusion over the naming of some members of the family. (None of this is uncommon in the plant world.) The gorgeous flower we call amaryllis and pot up for our living rooms around Christmas is a genus of the family and is botanically called Hippeastrum,
But as Shakespeare said, a rose by any other name…..

“Most commercial growing takes place in Holland or South Africa, and those are where our bulbs come from,” Dugald says. Bulbs from South Africa flower naturally in October/November, their summertime, and can easily be held back at cool temperatures so they bloom on December and early January. Amaryllis grown in the northern hemisphere–in other words, Holland–flower naturally in April or May and are usually forced (an artificialy induced cold period, then a warm period followed by cool temperatures to develop the bulbs) to get them to flower in December. Once bought, the Dutch bulbs usually take about five weeks to develop spectacular flowers, whereas southern hemisphere bulbs sprout quicker and tend to flower in about a week. How you know which is which when you’re buying a bulb, though, is another question, and one I can’t answer.

I can give you my advice on how to get your bulbs to re-bloom, though.

How to re-bloom your amaryllis

Hippeastrum apricot parfait

Hippeastrum ‘Apricot Parfait’

After the flowers are spent , cut off the stalks and allow the foliage to grow out. Keep the plant in bright light and fertilize the heck out of it. I use a water-soluble 20-20-20 or 30-30-30 fertilizer about every 10 days. Once the danger of frost has passed, put the plant, in its pot, in a lightly shaded spot in the garden. You don’t have to do this but I find amaryllis like it outdoors and it frees up the windowsills in my house. Just don’t forget where they are, because you want to keep the soil moist. Not soggy, please. And continue the feeding.

Sometime in August, stop the fertilizer. Bring the pot inside before frost hits and put it in a coolish spot with indirect light. The leaves will start to yellow and drop in a few weeks. Keep watering lightly. If you’re lucky, new flower stalks will appear in a few weeks. Start to fertilize again and move the plant to a warmer, sunnier spot.

Your amaryllis may grow only leaves for a couple of years, and the second blooming won’t be as dynamic as was the original flower, but keep growing them on and eventually you’ll be rewarded.

I’ve had the good luck to have a couple of my amaryllis bulbs bloom in their pots while in the garden. What a pleasant surprise that was!

As the bulbs continue to grow they may need larger pots; just be sure they are a snug fit.

If yours develops an offshoot, carefully detach it and pot in it’s own little pot. But don’t expect flowers for a few years.

Hippeastrum Rosalie

Hippeastrum ‘Rosalie’

PS: Dugald tells me the South African growers have developed a new series of amaryllis with smaller flowers. They come in roughly three sizes of blooms and are cunningly labelled Sonatina, Sonata and Symphony, with several cultivars in each division. “Three of the same cultivar are stunning grouped in one pot,” says Dugald.

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