The New Year is beckoning, and the human condition being what it is, the decorations that made your home festive and exciting a few short days ago can feel cluttered and cloying today. However, if you have begun eyeing up ornaments and frippery for boxes and trashbins, may I urge you to pause when your eyes fall upon the amaryllis bulbs whose blossoms are now fading quickly?
With a little bit of care, you can extend their lives well into the years to come, and get the most out of those holiday dollars.
I’ve been saving my amaryllis for years now, but this week I spoke with Brent Heath of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs to ensure my methods were above board and to see if there was anything I was missing.
Brent is one of the friendliest and kindest men I know, and although he was standing in a field directing the planting of thousands of daffodils in their display gardens in Gloucester, VA, he was happy to answer my questions if it meant encouraging others to enjoy their amaryllis for many seasons to come.
Before we get to those tips, I want to take a quick minute to explain why amaryllis behaves the way it does. Please resist the temptation to skip ahead – understanding a plant’s life cycle goes a long way towards helping us remember what to do and why to do it.
Amaryllis is a tropical bulb, 2-5 inches in diameter. It begins its growing season with a flowering spike (up to three) and then immediately follows up with long, strappy leaves that grow strongly over the warm months.
Under bright sunny conditions, that foliage produces food to be stored in the bulb for next season’s flowers and seeds. The bigger the bulb the more flowers it produces.
At the end of the growing season, the bulb goes through a dormancy period when water is scarce, temps are cooler and light levels are low. The foliage dies back and the bulb remains dormant for 2-3 months until rains resume, temperatures increase and those stunning flowers begin to emerge 4-6 weeks later.
When you or I pick up an amaryllis bulb at the store or in our mailbox in October, they have already gone through their foliage growing season on someone else’s dime and stored food in that bulb. The grower has also put them into a dormancy period for 8-10 weeks, and thus we are gifted pure papery-husked potential in need of a shot of water and a bit of warmth.
Once they have flowered on our tables and counters, they must once again produce foliage to create and store food for next year’s blooms.
And that’s where we come in.
Repotting Your Amaryllis
Unless you ordered by mail and then potted up your bulbs in your own good potting soil, most amaryllis ‘kits’ come with a disk of compressed peat that expands with water to form the growing medium – and which is almost completely free of nutrients. This year I impulse-added to my collection with ridiculously cheap bulbs in glass vases and sphagnum moss at Costco.
They bloomed beautifully, but didn’t love the temporary lodging.
All of these must now be re-potted into good soil with slow-release fertilizer. Brent uses and recommends Organic Mechanics potting mixes which not only contain an OMRI-listed fertilizer, but team with microbial life beneficial to your bulbs.
Snip the faded flower scape off to prevent the bulb putting energy into making seeds. Plant the bulb two-thirds below the soil, head and shoulders above. A layer of granite grit, rice hulls or perlite can help with fungus gnats if your houseplants suffer from them.
When I asked Brent about the old adage of crowding amaryllis bulbs in small pots much like agapanthus, he was familiar with the saying, but didn’t find it made a difference. What is more crucial is where you place the pot to benefit from the most light.
What a bulb wants: light and moisture
“You’re basically growing a sun lover in dense shade.” Brent told me “So you’ve got to give it as much light as you can.” That means south-facing windows. If you don’t have them, or a heated greenhouse at the ready, it might be time for a shop light in a back bedroom.
The long, strappy leaves of amaryllis (two to seven) can certainly cope with a lower level of light, but unlike other houseplants, they are using what they get to store energy in that bulb for next year’s bloom. Cheat them here and they’ll cheat you there.
Water your bulbs when the top inch of soil has dried, but don’t let them completely dry out.
Planting your amaryllis outside
By the time the date of the last frost rolls around, your amaryllis have hopefully been growing well and just like you, are ready for sunlight and a bit of fresh air. Time to take them outside.
Although the bulbs can be planted straight into the garden, I find that it’s easier if I leave them in their pots or put many of them in one pot and keep them with other sun-loving potted plants for ease of watering. As they are not particularly showy, it can be easy to forget them. Do not cut back any food-producing foliage unless it has yellowed or is obviously dead.
Starting the bloom process
Now the timing part begins. In late August or early September, bring your pots (and that’s why I keep them potted) into a cool garage or dark basement and withhold water.
Here they will live for 8-10 weeks in a state of dormancy. The foliage will yellow and die back. If you’re pulling them out of garden beds, plant them in pots with water to settle the soil, but do not give them further care.
Amaryllis bulbs take about 4-6 weeks to bloom when giv
en heat, light and water after dormancy. So make your calculations accordingly (mine are almost always off), and begin that process by cleanly cutting off the foliage (don’t cut into the neck of the bulb), and giving them those elements. If you’re aiming for Christmas bloom, start them at the end of October or early November.
Brent recommends giving them bottom heat with a heat mat at 70°F to get them going quickly. Some cultivars can be notoriously slow. He also recommends leaving any off-sets (baby bulbs) connected to the parent bulb to prevent a scar that fusarium might penetrate. Let them naturally disconnect themselves.
If you have the room and a shop light, you can take care of much of the waiting period somewhere other than your dining room table – and benefit from straighter blooming stems that didn’t have to reach toward the light.
Favorite amaryllis cultivars
There are hundreds of amaryllis hybrids, but we are often given very few from which to choose when buying in shops. Ordering online or through mail order in the early summer gives us bigger bulbs and a better selection. My current favorite is ‘Ambiance’ – a red and white cultivar with a green throat.
Brent confessed a fondness for both the traditional ‘Apple Blossom’ and the fragrant double, ‘Blossom Peacock;’ but the Sonatini hybrids which produce smaller but greater numbers of flowers are his new passion.
Whichever he grows, he likes to do so in arrangements with other bulbs such as paperwhites and oxalis to enhance the display – a trick I might employ next year.
And for your next trivia event…
Lastly, a bit of post-holiday pedanticism for the horticulturist in you. The bulbs we commonly refer to as amaryllis are actually hippeastrum (hip-ee-AS-trum) and are native to Central and South America. True amaryllis (all two species) are much less commonly seen and hail from South Africa.
Perhaps this matters only to botanists and trivia kings, but I find it amusing that one incorrect four-syllable scientific name should edge out the correct term of equal difficulty in the public vernacular. It just proves to me that, given enough repetition in common parlance, botanical nomenclature can be absorbed fairly painlessly.
But that is another lecture for another day. (And one that you shouldn’t bring up with friends if you wish to keep them.) Today I’d like to urge you to take care of those post-holiday bulbs – whatever you may call them.
If you feel like a bit of post-holiday browsing, Brent & Becky’s Bulbs specializes in all manner of bulbs for every season of the year. Visit them at www.brentandbeckysbulbs.com .
A version of this article first appeared in The Frederick News Post and is reposted here with kind permission.