By Christine March, Master Gardener, SCMG
The holiday season will be in full swing any minute now and we will soon be decorating our homes with festive flair. Poinsettias, evergreen branches and Christmas cactus all have their place in our holiday decor, but, to this gardener, nothing says Christmas like Amaryllis.
I mean, come on, look at this beauty:
This is Amaryllis “Elvas”. Gorgeous. Right?
Maybe you’re a classic white kind of person. This double, “White Nymph” is one of my favourites.
Amaryllis Papilio – “Butterfly Amaryllis” – adds a touch of exotica to your holiday decor.
But first, let’s get the eternal question out of the way:
Amaryllis or Hippeastrum?
The taxonomy of hippeastrum is complicated, but the scientific name of the genus was settled when the 14th International Botanical Congress in 1987 declared that the name “Amaryllis” should be used for cultivars of the genus Hippeastrum which are sold to flower indoors. Both Amaryllis and Hippeastrum belong to the plant family Amaryllidaceae and, while the beautiful plants that we know and love as Amaryllis are, in fact, Hippeastum hybrids, it is perfectly acceptable to call them by their more popular and common name, Amaryllis.
Hippeastrum are native to Central and South America. There are about 90 species and hundreds of hybrids and cultivars. True Amaryllis, on the other hand, are native to South Africa and have only two known species: A. belladonna and A. paradisicola.
Typically Amaryllis bulbs produce one or more stout-but-hollow leafless flowering stems (scapes) that grow 30-45 cm tall. Two to six flowers bloom atop each scape. Flowers size can range from 10-25 cm and come in a huge array of colours red, white, pink, salmon, apricot, rose or deep burgundy. Many are two-toned and some varieties feature interesting markings on the flower petals. The large strap-shaped green leaves begin to grow at about the time the flowers open. (Sometimes the leaves will emerge first, but this is unusual.)
Cultivating these gorgeous blooms couldn’t be simpler. About six to ten weeks before you want to see flowers – timing varies amongst the various cultivars –pot up the bulb in a container with good drainage. Leave the neck of the bulb above the soil. Amaryllis bulbs like to be a bit pot-bound. For single bulbs, choose a pot that is 2½ to 5 cm wider than the diameter of the bulb and about 17 cm deep. For dramatic effect, plant multiple bulbs in a wider container.
Water lightly around the bulb and move to a bright, warm spot. Once your bulb produces a flower stalk you can water more frequently. But be careful, too much water could rot your bulb. And remember to water around the base of the bulb, not over the top! It’s also helpful to rotate your pot regularly to prevent the stalk from bending towards the light. The flowers of many Amaryllis can be enormous and heavy! Stake the stalks with sturdy decorative branches to prevent the plant from toppling over.
If you’re a first-time Amaryllis grower you might want to start with an inexpensive supermarket bulb. They are often sold in kits and are an affordable introduction to these easy-care plants. As your love for Amaryllis grows you’ll want to seek out rarer bulbs from specialty catalogues, nurseries or garden centres. As with most bulbs, size does matter: buy the biggest bulbs you can. They can be expensive (I recently paid $60 for two Amaryllis Comet. Ouch!) but, with a bit of post-bloom TLC, they will flower for years so can provide good value over time.
Your plant could produce blooms for weeks, depending on the cultivar. Snip off spent flowers during its blooming season to keep your plant looking its best. When your Amaryllis has finished blooming continue to water and fertilize. Doing so will feed the bulb for next season’s blooms. Once all danger of frost has passed move the bulb outside to a sunny location (avoid blistering west sun). Continue to water and fertilize until late summer. Once the strappy leaves begin to turn yellow, remove the bulb to a cool, dark location, such as a garden shed or garage. Stop watering and fertilizing. Leave the bulb in this dormant state for about six to eight weeks. Bring it back into the house, cut off any yellowed leaves and stalks and start the process all over again. With luck your bulb will bloom this way for years to come.
Sophisticated, easy-care Amaryllis truly are the belles of the holiday ball and deserve to be the centrepiece of your festive holiday decor.