Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Most people think of poinsettias when holiday plants are mentioned. One that is often overlooked but provides years of bang for the buck is the amaryllis. These bulbs will reliably produce gorgeous large blooms year after year with a little basic care. The two most important factors to consider are light and water. Adequate light is needed for the foliage that emerges after the flower stalk to provide a means for the bulb to store energy for next year's flowers. An actively growing amaryllis needs regular watering, but too much will inevitably suffocate the roots and allow rot to move in.
Supposedly I know a thing or two about growing plants. But it's funny how you can rationalize a situation that will not work but you really want it to, or you're in a hurry and turn a blind eye to cutting corners. I had an amaryllis collection of about twenty bulbs when I started graduate school, but managed to reduce it by about three-quarters in the years that followed by ignoring what little basic care they needed.
My amaryllis collection was one group of plants that would flower successfully in my apartment, but afterwards I didn't have enough light for the foliage. For some odd reason I didn't want to admit that there simply wasn't enough light, so for a couple of years I struggled to keep the amaryllis going. The foliage would never grow very well, and as a result many times the bulbs would not flower the following year. So my mom became the surrogate gardener for them.
She loved the flowers, but really couldn't stand the foliage after they bloomed, and always wanted to know if she could cut it off. This is the same thing she always wants to do to the spring bulbs in the yard. Removing the foliage creates a problem for both the indoor and outdoor bulbs–they depend on the foliage to store energy for producing flowers the next year, and without it they simply will not flower when next year comes. In extreme cases of doing this every year, the bulb will die. I don't think mom ever cut the foliage on my amaryllis, but she didn't have to. I unfortunately did enough on my own to kill them off one by one.
I tended to repot my amaryllis every two or three years, depending on their size. In one hurried visit home during grad school, I repotted them in the first potting soil I was able to find at the store–not my usual one. The potting soil turned out to be of such poor quality that over time it compacted down in the pot and barely drained at all. I didn't realize it until returning home a few weeks later, and while each amaryllis managed to flower, the foliage didn't look very healthy. It was somewhat yellow and limp. The soil was a soggy mess. I thought that reducing the amount of watering would help, but over time even that didn't help. That spring I tried to salvage every bulb that I could, but unfortunately lost all but a few. A collection I had amassed over several years was severely reduced in a single season all because of being in a hurry and cutting corners.
On the bright side, this unplanned reduction in my amaryllis collection has made it easier for me to justify acquiring new ones. As many gardeners know, there is always a new and improved plant on the horizon. This is just as true for amaryllis as for other plants. There are so many new cultivars on the market, I know I'll run out of room before I have all the ones I want. One current estimate says there are about 194 amaryllis cultivars plus many species available, with new ones added each year, and a few removed from production.
The amaryllis in stores this holiday season is usually from the genus Hippeastrum, containing around 75 species of large-flowered bulbs originally found in Mexico and South America. In the 1700's Dutch bulb growers began experimenting with Hippeastrum bulbs brought back by explorers. It wasn't until 1837 that British botanist William Herbert gave the bulbs the genus name Hippeastrum, meaning "horseman's star". No one really knows why he gave the bulbs this name, but many think it must have something to do with the flower buds resembling horse's ears, and the flowers bearing a strong resemblance to a six-pointed star.
Some of the newest additions are due to creative breeding efforts using different amaryllis species to make different colors and flower shapes available to the indoor gardener. It used to be that amaryllis was commonly available in four basic colors: red, pink, white, and striped with red and white. Not anymore.
A glance at the Christmas catalogs filling my mailbox, and a trip to a few of my favorite garden centers reveals the incredible diversity available in amaryllis today. There is a vast spectrum of the basic shades available, new colors, such as salmon, and color combinations such as petals edged with a contrasting color. One of my favorites is "Picotee", a cultivar with large, crisp white flowers edged with bright red.
One highly prized color for amaryllis is yellow. There are very few true yellows available. Most, like the cultivars 'Lemon-Lime' and 'Yellow Goddess' have a greenish cast to them. A related genus, Rhodophiala, contains the species bagnoldii that is a gorgeous true golden yellow. At one time this species used to be classified in the genus Hippeastrum, but later was reassigned to Rhodophiala. Regardless, it is a very close relative of Hippeastrum.
There are cultivars available with double or even triple flowers. 'Lady Jane' is a gorgeous double with apricot flowers streaked with white. There are also miniature, trumpet, and cymbister, or spindly spider-like flower shapes available.
It is an interesting fact that as flowers are bred with double or triple layers of petals, the number of stamens produced by the flower is reduced by the number of additional petals. This is true for other plants besides amaryllis as well. When the flower has the maximum number of petals, it is male sterile, meaning it cannot produce pollen needed for seed production.
Botanically speaking, referring to Hippeastrums by the common name amaryllis is incorrect. Although they belong in the Amaryllidacae family, Hippeastrums are not true amaryllis. Bulbs of the genus Amaryllis are native to South Africa, and are referred to commonly as Belladonna, surprise, or naked lilies. Just to add to the confusion, the common names "surprise" and "naked" lilies are sometimes used for a completely different plant, Lycoris squamigera. Sometimes the only way to be sure of what you are buying is to look at the Latin name!