It is only with great self-restraint that I can pass by the numerous exciting amaryllis varieties available in garden centers in late fall for holiday bloom. When I had access to greenhouses, I did not deny myself these beauties and I built a good collection. In the winter, one of the greenhouses was kept at 45–50 degrees to accommodate certain plants that need a cold spell in their growth cycle, like amaryllis and many other tropicals. Now that I no longer have greenhouse access, I give amaryllis as gifts. One that had been a gift for a friend that passed away this year was returned to me before Christmas and the ensuing blooms reminded me of her. It was her favorite flower and the favorite of her mother. Now I must take appropriate care of it in her memory.
With some research, I have learned that the variety we grow for holidays is hippeastrum and it is indigenous to South Africa. Amaryllis and hippeastrum are members of the large narcissus family, which has members in several countries. The true amaryllis, also called belladonna lily or naked ladies is from South America. Hippeastrum has been hybridized since the mid-1700s and one of the oldest varieties, St Joseph’s lily, is still available. I think I need to grow this one to see what it looks like!
Hippeastrum and amaryllis have similar growth patterns. Both produce leaves first, the leaves die, and later flowers on tall stems appear. The ones we buy in the fall have had this cycle disturbed for holiday bloom. Hippeastrum can be grown in gardens in zones 9–11 but are house plants here. Amaryllis can be grown in zones 7, and, with very good mulch, 10.
Amaryllis, (not hippeastrum), also called belladonna lily, naked lady lily and surprise lily, is very similar to its cousin lycoris squamigera, (resurrection lily). It grows in zones 5–9. These are both wonderful additions to the garden. Leaves appear in spring and fade by mid-summer. Just after the gardener has forgotten that a plant has lived in that spot, flowering stems arise from the ground, hence the surprise…
Outside of zones 9–10, hippeastrum must be grown as house plants. With appropriate care, they will last for many years and even produce side bulbs that will grow to flower producing size with patience. After the flowers die and the stem has begun to shrivel, cut it to within 2 feet of the top of the bulb. Leaves will appear usually just as the stem begins to bud. Keep the bulb in bright light, the soil just moist and fertilize with liquid fertilizer once per month.
The bulb in its pot can by buried on the garden in bright, full light in late May and treated like other garden plants, still with liquid fertilizer once per month. Be sure to acclimate it to the outside sun by moving it to increasing amounts of light daily over five to seven days. Bring it into the house in September and set in a bright window. Cease water and fertilizer. When the leaves turn brown, move the bulb, still in its pot, into a cool, dark place like the basement or garage. It needs to be there for 8–10 weeks with no water or fertilizer. After this period of rest (and deprivation!), bring it into a semi-light place and water. Apply only minimal water until buds begin to show. Then move it into sunlight and begin to water and fertilize.
This process was easy with the greenhouses. Just before frost, I moved them into the green house that would be 45–50 degrees for the winter. All of the plants were watered minimally as they were “hibernating.’ The leaves died (or didn’t) and the plants budded when the temperatures began to rise with increasing temperatures in spring.
Care instructions for amaryllis (hippeastrum) often say to repot every spring. I have found that they really need no repotting until the bulb gets very large or the potting soil becomes very degraded. But they like their roots restricted so, if repotting, increase the pot size minimally.
Amaryllis, so spectacular this time of year, are examples of man’s intervention on plant development for many years and, with care, will continue to bloom.
Jeanelle Myers is a professional gardener, landscaper and consultant. For gardening discussion you can call her at 631-434-5067.