Christmas is the time for many traditions — gifts, Christmas trees, nativity pageants, Santa, snow, bells, red and green and much more. Plants are also among the traditions we associate with Christmas. Besides the obvious ones of mistletoe and holly, other plants find their way into homes during the holidays.
One of my favorites is the amaryllis, also known scientifically as Hippeastrum. While they have a lily-like appearance, they are only distantly related to the lily. The amaryllis is a bulb plant and is probably the easiest to bring into bloom. It will bloom indoors or, during warm weather, it can be brought to bloom outdoors. The plant originated in the tropical regions of South America, which should provide clues to its optimum growing conditions.
The flowers grow as umbels — clusters of flowers originating from the same place on the stem — atop stalks that may grow up to 18 inches long. Blossoms are composed of long, slender petals that spread and curve back to form a trumpet-shaped flower. Typically they begin opening one by one, although their blooms sometimes overlap to provide a flower show of several blooms at the same time. There may be two or three flowers on a stem or up to six or seven. Some large bulbs produce two stems of flowers — one after the other. Larger bulbs produce larger flowers.
The flowers are truly spectacular. They are very large and very showy towering above the pot and long sword-shaped leaves of the plant. The flowers tend to appear first — often before the leaves even get started growing. The leaves eventually grow about as long as the flower stalks, but not typically before the blossoms have waned.
The amaryllis comes in beautiful varieties including an array of red shades, pink, white, salmon and orange. To add further interest, there are also striped and multicolored varieties that combine shades of pink, red or white.
Each blossom lasts only a few days, and the cluster may wane within a week or 10 days depending on the conditions. However, part of the appeal of these plants is watching the plant grow from a bulb in the soil to a fully open, blooming plant.
At this time of year, you will find them pre-planted and already starting to grow or you may find them boxed up as kits that you can plant and care for from start to finish.
If you receive one in a pot, just add water as the soil begins to dry out and watch the plant grow and the blossoms unfold. If you get a “starter kit,” follow the instructions on the box or use the following steps:
Bulbs that have been shipped unplanted in a box tend to get dehydrated. Soak them in lukewarm water for a few hours to re-hydrate them. If you cannot plant the bulbs as soon as you get them, keep them between 40 and 50 degrees until you are ready to plant them.
Put them into a nutritious potting mix. Plant it up to its neck in the compost, being careful not to damage the roots at the bottom of the bulb. Press the soil down firmly to set the bulb after it is planted.
Place the potted bulb in a warm place (ideally around 68 to 70 degrees) with direct light. Heat is needed for stems to develop. Water sparingly until the stem shows up with buds on the end. As the bud and leaves appear, gradually water more often. The stem will grow rapidly and the flowers will develop when it is fully tall.
It takes seven to 10 weeks for an amaryllis to grow from bulb to bloom. In the winter, the flower time will be longer than in the spring. Plant sometime between October and April depending on when you want the flowers to appear.
After the amaryllis has stopped flowering, cut the old flowers from the stem. Since the stem contributes to photosynthesis, as well as the leaves, leave it intact until it begins to sag. Then cut it back to the top of the bulb.
The leaves will continue to grow, so continue to water and fertilize as normal for at least five or six months allowing the leaves to fully develop and grow. You can put the plant outdoors in the summer months, but do not put it into full sun initially as the leaves will need time to adapt to the increased light and will burn if they are exposed too quickly.
They normally begin to yellow in early fall. Cut them back to about 2 inches from the top of the bulb and take the bulb out of the soil.
Clean it off and place it in a 40 to 50 degree place — possibly the crisper of your refrigerator — for a minimum of six weeks. Do not store these bulbs in a refrigerator that contains apples as they will sterilize the bulb.
After six weeks remove the bulbs and replant them about eight weeks before you would like them to bloom again.