Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
My mom and my husband have a lot in common regarding their views on my tendency to be a plant collector. Basically they both just don't understand why anyone would have more than one or two of a particular plant. Despite their sighs and eye-rolling when they see me bring home another plant, they both reluctantly admit to enjoying plants that bloom indoors, particularly in the winter months.
One of my favorite indoor blooming plants is the amaryllis, a bulb commonly sold along with a pot and potting soil for growing in the home. Unlike other blooming plants populating store shelves this holiday season, the amaryllis is easily coaxed into reblooming year after year. As an added bonus, the bulb will produce offsets, or daughter bulbs that can be individually potted to increase your collection size or given to other amaryllis lovers.
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 cultivar 'Lemon Star' which I recently purchased have a greenish cast to them.
There are cultivars available with double or even triple flowers. 'Dancing Queen' is a gorgeous double with red flowers streaked with white. There are also miniature, trumpet, and cymbister, or spindly spider-like flower shapes available.
Amaryllis are not hard to find during the holidays. Maybe you received one as a gift this season and are wondering what to do with it. Most amaryllis sold as gifts are sold with a pot and potting mix for growing at home. It only takes a few minutes to get your amaryllis planted and within a month or so you should have gorgeous flowers indoors.
Inspect the bulb contained in your amaryllis kit. It should have a papery skin over the outside, but otherwise feel firm, not mushy. Beware of bulbs which appear to have powdery blue or greenish mold growing on them or feel completely dried out. These are not likely to produce good flowers, if they flower at all.
It is not unusual to see a few inches of a flower bud or leaves growing from the bulb when you remove it from the package. This is totally normal. Sometimes there is a flower bud and stem growing in a circle around the inside of the box. This is a sign that the bulb has been in the box way too long-- chances are the store received the bulbs very early in the season, or maybe you found the bulb on a post-holiday clearance rack. Plant it anyway and hope for the best. Sometimes the stem will straighten out and bloom well, sometimes not. Many times there will be a second flower bud later on in the season. If not there is always next year.
Amaryllis prefer to be somewhat pot-bound for best blooming. The pots packaged with amaryllis kits are typically the right size-- just an inch or two wider than the bulb. Check to see that there are drainage holes in the bottom of the pot. If there are no holes, drill some holes in the bottom of the pot, or find a different pot to use that has holes. Without drainage holes you will likely drown your amaryllis.
You may use the potting mix packaged with your amaryllis, or any good general potting mix used for houseplants will work. Plant your amaryllis bulb with 1/3 to ½ of the top half of the bulb exposed above the soil. If it is not obvious which way is up on your bulb, the top is more pointed, and the bottom will be flatter with roots. Water thoroughly until the potting mix is completely moist. Do not water again until either you notice growth from the top of the bulb, or the potting mix is bone-dry. After the bulb begins to grow, water thoroughly when the potting mix is dry.
Amaryllis need bright indirect light to flower well in the home. As the flower bud and stem grow, they will tend to arch toward the available light. Turn the pot a quarter turn each day to keep the stem straight. Use caution when moving bulbs with tall stems and leaves, as they tend to be brittle and break easily.
Some amaryllis kits come with a special vase designed to hold the amaryllis bulb so it can be grown in water without soil. A vase or jar slightly larger than the bulb may be substituted for the specialized vase. The vase or jar is filled with gravel and water and the base of the bulb and the roots are the only parts actually touching the water. With a vase designed for amaryllis, the gravel is not needed, as the shape of the vase holds the base and roots of the bulb at the proper level in the water.
Typically, an amaryllis grown in this manner cannot be recycled year to year. Growing a bulb this way severely depletes its energy. It would be worth a try to move the bulb to a potting media and trying to revive it. Don't be surprised if it takes a couple of years to begin flowering again however.
After your amaryllis has flowered, care for it like any other green houseplant. Fertilize only after blooming is completed with a general houseplant fertilizer. Amaryllis are semi-tropical plants, and they prefer to be moved outdoors for the summer. Place them outdoors in an area where they receive some sun, but avoid prolonged exposure to hot afternoon sun-- this can burn the leaves.
In about September, stop watering your amaryllis to prevent root rot as the bulb enters its natural rest period. I lay my pots on their sides to remind me not to water, and to keep any rains off my amaryllis. After night temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, I bring my amaryllis indoors, either to the garage, or a cool spot in the house. Amaryllis can tolerate a light frost, but not a hard freeze. Temperatures during the rest period should range from 45 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. It is natural for the leaves to yellow and die back during this time.
Most amaryllis need a rest period of about six weeks before they will bloom again. Some need as much as three to four months. I tend to give my amaryllis a rest period of at least eight to ten weeks just because I prefer to get them growing again after the holidays, when there is not much of anything exciting to look at indoors or out. I start my bulbs growing again each year just like I did when they were originally purchased-- water thoroughly and don't water again until you see growth or the potting mix has completely dried out.
Amaryllis may be left in the same pot from year to year. They will produce more blooms if the roots are left undisturbed in their pots and they are slightly pot bound. Every two to three years I replace the soil in the pots either right before or right after the rest period.
A big advantage to saving your amaryllis from year to year is that the bulb will increase in size, and with increased size comes increased flowering. Large bulbs will produce two or more stems with flower buds. The bulbs will also produce offsets or daughter bulbs that can be individually potted.
One trick for rapidly increasing the size of your amaryllis bulb is to plant it out in the garden for the summer. But you should remember to dig it up in the fall, as it will not survive freezing temperatures-- at least that's what all the books say.
A friend of mine tried this trick and forgot one of her amaryllis out in the garden until the following spring when she spotted a large flower bud arching its way out of the ground! Was it a mutant amaryllis that could survive freezing temperatures? Not quite.
She had planted her bulb in a very sheltered area near her house near the dryer vent and where all the cold winter winds were blocked. She jokes about her "Zone 9" garden and so far the amaryllis is still going strong in that spot.
The other "super-amaryllis" I'm aware of is in our next door neighbor's yard. My neighbor received one of the amaryllis vase kits for Christmas about two years ago, where the amaryllis grows in pure water. As she will surely tell anyone, she is NOT a gardener. I'm not sure whether the amaryllis ever bloomed that year, but the water in the vase went bad and the whole thing smelled so horrible my neighbor literally opened the front door and pitched the amaryllis bulb into the bushes by their front door.
Last summer I noticed for the first time what looked to be a bright red amaryllis blooming by their front door. Was it some new type of hardy amaryllis? My neighbor didn't know what it was, then remembered throwing the bulb out the door in January about two years previously.
Even though it was literally pitched on top of the mulch next to the bushes with no special care, it had somehow survived. It is the biggest amaryllis bulb I've ever seen. It is near the garage door that opens and gives a puff of warm air over it at least twice a day as people go in and out. What a lucky plant!
As my amaryllis produce offsets, I may experiment by putting a few out in sheltered garden spots to see how they overwinter. With a little luck I'll find a little "zone 9" niche in my own garden!