Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Amaryllis: The Joy that Keeps on Giving by Patti O'Neal

Amaryllis is a rare gift to a gardener, providing near instant gratification producing a magnificent spectacle in 4-6 weeks. It’s a gift of growing something and making it bloom right in the middle of snow and freezing temperatures. The trick for many is to get them to do it again the following year. 

Amaryllis is a tender bulb, meaning it does not require a chilling period to bloom.  These beauties originate in the temperate climates of South America where they grow and bloom outdoors.  Here in the chilly Rocky Mountains we enjoy them “forced” during the holidays of December and on into January and even February. 

The term “forcing” is really a misnomer.  There is actually very little force involved. 
Forcing as it relates to bulbs is actually a sleight of hand trick to make a bulb bloom out of its normal bloom season.  It’s easy enough to do and with some good care tips you can enjoy them again the following year.  Here’s how.

The bulbs should be firm and full and have many fleshy, cream colored roots. They should have a brown outer skin similar to an onion, but not be loose.  The bigger the bulb the better; and likewise they will be more expensive.  But they are generally of better quality and you will have better success.  The larger bulbs produce multiple stems with multiple blooms.  The smaller bulbs produce a single stem with one or two blooms.  You can spend anywhere from $15-$20 for these large bulbs, so learning a few best practices will keep you from tossing some very expensive annuals at the end of their blooms season. 


Choose a heavy container, ceramic or terra cotta are both good choices to support the top heavy planting that will happen when it blooms.  The bulbs like to be in close quarters, so only 1 ½” to 2” wider than the bulb and only 8-9” deep is best.  The container should have adequate drainage.  You should use a good quality potting soil and gently pack it around the bulb so that 1/2 to 2/3 of the bulb should be above the soil.   Water in and do not water again until the bulb shows signs of life.  At this point you resume regular watering and fertilizing begins just before bud break.  A flower bud should emerge before the leaves do.  Once the plant blooms, move it to a cooler location and indirect light so the blooms don’t fade.  Enjoy the gorgeous blooms.

As blooms fade, clip them off close to the stem.  Once all blooms on the stem are spent, cut the stem approximately l” from the tip of the bulb.  Leaves should have emerged by now.  Once all stems are cut back, begin to treat the bulb as a houseplant.  You can move back to brighter light and continue to water as needed.  In the warm months of summer I move mine outside to a sunny spot to give it as much light as possible.  This is what feeds the bulb for a future bloom. 

In late August or early September, stop watering and fertilizing and let plant dry out in the sun.  Leaves will die off.  When this happens, trim the dead leaves and loose scales and move the plant to a cool dark spot.  Hold water and move to a sunny spot 6 weeks before you want the plant to bloom again.  Water thoroughly and then with hold water again until the bulb begins to bud and the cycle begins again. 

Amaryllis do not like to be disturbed.  Repot every 3-4 years and trim any dried, brown roots when changing to fresh soil.  Even if you do everything right, your bulb may not bloom the second year.  Remember, that they are coming from the grower’s hands where they have been given special care and attention by professionals to bring the bulb to maximum performance before they go to market.  It may just be adjusting to your  particular care that second year, and with the continued, consistent care, it should bloom happily the third year and beyond.

This is not the case, however, for amaryllis forced in water.  Although attractive, and successful in its own way, water forcing expends all the energy in the bulb, making a future bloom unlikely.  In this case, treat your bulb as an annual and start over the following season with a new one. 

So, give yourself a wonderful gift this year and invest in the largest bulb you can spring for and give yourself the gift of an amazing flowering display at the holidays, an attractive houseplant during the summer and a gorgeous display next year that you can admire and be proud that you made happen.