This time of year, one of the most common questions from my web correspondents is: how do I get my poinsettia and the amaryllis they gave me at the Christmas party to bloom again?
Well, unless you’re really short of indoor greens, I say as soon as the poinsettia begins to look like a plucked chicken, toss it. But amaryllis are different, especially the magnificent new varieties. They’re horticultural treasures that will reward just a little care with years of ever more satisfying bloom.
Remember the old mile-high amaryllis stems topped by quartets of scarlet trumpets that never seemed able to open all together? The first one I ever saw was scraping the ceiling of the New York Flower Show. The friend with me spotted it first and stopped dead in her tracks, head back, eyes up, frozen in admiration. Love at first sight. I thought it had swallowed Alice in Wonderland’s grow-taller mushroom. But those gawky days are long gone. Right now on my kitchen counter there are four pots of amaryllis. Two pots are in bloom: in one a set of three dainty mini gracillis amaryllis have opened their with slim red trumpets, and in the other a giant bulb anchors two sturdy 12-inch stems topped by ten, yes, TEN, velvety trumpets in an vibrant blood red, ALL open. In the other two pots, sleek jade-green flowering stems are zooming up.
These gorgeous new varieties are a modest sampling of what lies ahead. The amaryllis wave has not yet crested! Breeders are in love with the giant bulb from South America because it reproduces so often and so easily (even in your pot) that hybridizers can make their dreams of new varieties come true in a relatively short time. The august Dr. August (Gus) A. De Hertogh, dean of bulb scientists, calls the amaryllis “the rabbit of the bulb family,” and predicts it will be the most important bulb flower of the 21st century.
If anyone knows, Dr. De Hertogh does. I met him in the mid 90s when I was working on The American Horticultural Society Flower Finder. A plant physiologist from Belgium, for 30 years he headed all the bulb trials for the Dutch Exporters Association. He has produced the highly respected Holland Bulb Forcer’s Guide, Fourth Edition, designed for commercial flower forcers but popular with just folks, and The Holland Bulb Garden Guide, which is prized by the landscaping industry.
Now Professor of Horticultural Science at North Carolina State University, Dr. De Hertogh is a warm, generous man with the slightly absent manner of the absorbed researcher. His passion for bulbs doesn’t end in the lab. He and Mary Belle, his wife, grow masses of bulbs of every kind in their home gardens. I asked Dr. De Hertogh what one bulb he would take if he and Mary Belle were about to be stranded on a dessert island.
He replied, “Hippeastrum, the Barbados lily.” Amaryllis to you and me.
De Hertogh said he would take an amaryllis because, in addition to lavish and reliable blooms “it’s a magnificent cutting flower, has no enemies, is perennial, blooms almost anywhere, and reproduces easily and repeatedly.” Can’t beat that! In the snow belt, we grow the giant bulbs in pots indoors and they bloom in mid winter. But in warm climates amaryllis are used as bedding plants.
Dr. De Hertogh told me way back then of the hybridizers love affair with the amaryllis. “The potential is tremendous, ” he said. “It will be the most important flower of the 21 century.”
Early in the coming century, Dr. De Hertogh predicted the appearance of ever more varieties offering a greater choice in size, more pinks, more bi-colors, and more picotees. He anticipated variations on the tall yellow amaryllis, slim and elegant as a lily-flowered tulip, which had made its first appearance in my catalogs that year. He predicted amaryllis doubles and amaryllis that are fragrant. We have a few fragrant forms now and the fragrance will be enhanced.
Mary Belle De Hertogh loves amaryllis as much as her husband does. Mary Belle is a real Southern name, given to honor two grandmothers, Mary and Belle. Not satisfied with the 50 amaryllis she personally grows, now and then Mary Belle sweeps through her husband’s research greenhouses, emerging with great armfuls of amaryllis that she designs into stunning bouquets.
(Mary Belle is so well loved, a new tulip has been named for her. The ‘Mary Belle’ is a multi- flowered, mid-season red with a broad yellow edge. It hadn’t been classified when Dr. De Hertogh told me about it, but he expected it to belong to the Triumphs, medium height tulips. You don’t have to be rich and famous to have a flower named for you-you just have to love flowers, and be very much loved in return.) In the South, Zones 8 to 11, smaller amaryllis hybrids survive winters in the garden with protective mulch. There’s a photo in the Flower Finder of a fabulous turnaround in Florida filled with amaryllis in flower. If you grow lots, you could, like Mary Belle, harvest them for bouquets.
The best time to harvest amaryllis is while they are still in the bud stage with just the lead bud showing color. Cut too soon, the buds may not open. A stem will last up to two weeks, depending much on luck, and some on handling. If you can get the amaryllis stem to drink vase water, all the buds will open.
My friend Eileen Brennan, a floral designer in Guilford, Connecticut, told me how she gets amaryllis to open. She adds floral preservative to warm vase water and fills a measuring cup with the same solution. Then she re-cuts the amaryllis stem under the water, upends the stem, and fills it with the preservative solution. For support, she gently pushes a clean stick up into the stem, all the way to the head. She stuffs the bottom of the stem with cotton to hold the stick in, covers the end with her thumb to hold the water in, and puts the stem into the vase water before removing her thumb. Then she proceeds with the arrangement. Other flowers with hollow stems benefit from similar treatment, delphinium and lupines, for example.
I haven’t heard of any plans to make amaryllis hardy enough to overwinter here in Northwest Connecticut, but your gift amaryllis can easily be made to rebloom every year, especially if it can be outdoors in summer.
Gift bulbs usually start to grow 4 to 6 weeks after being planted. Any well-drained all purpose potting soil kept evenly damp will do. Do not fertilize the plant until you see signs of growth. The amaryllis prefers temperatures between 61 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and suffers below 55 degrees. A sunny sill is a good spot for it while it is growing, but bright light, not direct sun, are better when the plant is in bloom. These great big trumpets stay fresh longer, a week or ten days or more, if the soil is a little on the dry side during the blooming period.
To handle an amaryllis so it will come back into bloom, after the blossoms fade, cut the flower stem(s) off at the base. Set the pot in a sunny East, West or South window, and fertilize lightly at every watering. The great strap-shaped leaves stay handsome. If you can, summer your amaryllis outdoors in good indirect light. Otherwise, keep it on a sunny sill. Before the outdoor temperatures drop below 55 F or 60 F, bring the pot indoors. I once left an amaryllis out until October in Washington, DC, and oddly enough, it gave up its mid winter bloom cycle and flowering in the spring.
The amaryllis needs a period of dormancy before it can come into bloom again. So after it’s summer vacation, bring it indoors, cut the foliage off cleanly at the base, and store the pot in a warm, dry room. After the soil has dried, set the pot on its side.
In two or three months, start checking the pot for new growth. The first sign is a slim white-green tongue poking through the top of the bulb. That’s the signal it’s ready to grow. Add a few inches of fresh potting soil, or repot if you’re up to it. It’s best to keep your amaryllis in a pot no more than two inches larger than the bulb’s diameter. The top two or three inches of the bulb should be above the soil. Keep the pot in good light, and resume watering and fertilizing. Those huge, glorious trumpets should unfurl in 4 to 6 or 8 weeks.