Holiday gardening

Amaryllis: The holiday season’s festive flower

 

Grow your own

 Amaryllis (Hippeastrum) are New World plants, native to Central and South America, and hardy outdoors only in mild-winter climates, like South Florida. They are among the showiest of winter houseplants — coming into brilliant bloom at the darkest time of the year. They make great gifts, and they are undemanding and easy to grow. It is a thrill to watch them shoot up, form their buds and come into glorious bloom. It is too late to plant a bulb in time for it to bloom by this Christmas, but follow these instructions to grow a new bulb next year or to cultivate the bulb from a plant you already have.

• Choose a healthy bulb; buy firm bulbs with a tuft of roots at the base.

• The pot should be only slightly larger than the bulb, and should have a drainage hole.

• Put a handful of potting soil in the bottom of the pot and place the bulb on it; the neck and shoulders of the bulb should show above the rim of the pot. Fill in around the bulb with potting soil, tapping it a little to settle the soil around the bulb.

• Water well, but do not pour water into the very top of the bulb. Let the water drain through the pot.

• Place the pot in a sunny spot (a south or west window will work fine), and then water only sparingly until the flower spike appears. The soil should be moist, but never soggy.

• Keep the pot away from hot and cold drafts.

• Most amaryllis will bloom about six weeks after planting, but it could be as little as four weeks and as much as eight.

• Once the flowers start to open, indirect light is best. Each stem will produce four or more blooms, and a large bulb may produce two or three stems. Snip off the flowers as they fade, and cut the stems about an inch from the bulb after all the flowers have bloomed. Strappy leaves start to grow as the flowering period ends.

• Fertilize lightly twice a year with a slow-release low nitrogen fertilizer (like Osmocote or Dynamite) in the spring and summer.

• To force a holiday bloom next year, stop watering or fertilizing the plant beginning in early August. Remove the bulb from the soil in early September, wipe off the dirt and place the bulb in your refrigerator’s vegetable crisper for six weeks or more. Replant it six to either weeks before you want it to bloom.

• If you want to plant the bulbs in the ground, you can, but it will change their blooming cycle, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The bulbs won’t be exposed to the necessary cool temperatures and dormant period until December or January, which is not early enough to trigger a holiday bloom. Instead, the amaryllis will bloom in the spring. Plant the bulbs at the proper depth in an area that receives full sun during the day.

SOURCES

• John Scheepers: www.johnscheepers.com

• Colorblends: www.colorblends.com

Jeff Wasielewski of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden contributed to this report


Universal UClick

Winter means nothing to the great trumpets of amaryllis flowers. These flashy blooms truly make the season bright as they put on their spectacular show indoors.

Amaryllis are big, bold and easy; you can grow your own from a handsome and satisfyingly solid bulb, or simply buy show-stopping cut flowers that will last for two weeks in a vase. They are so eager to bloom that the bulbs sold in garden shops, by florists and in grocery stores often have a flower spathe or stalk already poking up through the crinkly, oniony layers at the bulb’s thick neck. Each stem produces up to four showy, trumpet-shaped flowers. All they need is a little encouragement and a spot where they can shine.

“Some people have classic favorites that they order every year, and other people mix it up, like a surprise party,” says Jo-Anne van den Berg-Ohms, owner of Scheepers, a mail-order bulb specialist. Van den Berg-Ohms plants dozens of amaryllis every year for herself and friends.

“American gardeners are experimenting with everything — they’re not just growing red amaryllis anymore,” she says. Amaryllis’s deep red blooms suit the season’s palette perfectly, but there are also pink, snow white and bicolored flowers, and others with lively contrasting stripes and swirls, or a sophisticated picotee trim.

Wholesale florists have sold amaryllis as cut flowers for years. Event designers have been steady customers, but the big blooms are catching on in retail flower markets, too. In Holland, “you see them in flower stands, and they are jaw-dropping — they are absolutely fabulous,” van den Berg-Ohms says. In the U.S., they’re all the more arresting because they are so unusual.

In florists’ shops, cut-flower amaryllis cost $10 a stem and up. If you buy stems with buds just beginning to open, you’ll be able to enjoy the flowers for two weeks or longer. Place the stems in water just an inch or two deep (this keeps the long stems from turning yellow and losing their strength). To keep the flowers fresh, trim an inch or two off the stem every few days and change the water. Move it to a smaller vase, if necessary. As you move to progressively smaller vases, simplify the arrangement of accompanying greenery, or take it out altogether.

The amaryllis bulbs sold in early winter — the ones that will bloom during the holidays — come from South Africa, where summer is just getting started. “They’re ready to pop out of dormancy now,” van den Berg-Ohms says. Amaryllis shipped from the Netherlands are no less spectacular, but they’re on a different schedule. They bloom during the winter, too, but not in time for Christmas. Van den Berg-Ohms recommends them as a great holiday gift, because watching them come into bloom is part of the experience. “It’s how you nurture yourself, so you will feel like you’re thriving over the winter,” she says. Dry bulbs cost $10 to $15.

Pre-potted bulbs (from about $15 to $70, depending on the pot) are a little more expensive than dry bulbs that you can plant yourself, but that’s just the price of convenience. Amaryllis are large plants, and the pots should be stable and sturdy. If you buy a pre-potted bulb in a plastic pot, place it in a cachepot, which will provide support as the amaryllis sends up its tall flower spike. Amaryllis do not need much light while they’re blooming, so you can place them wherever they look best. Move them to a bright spot after the flowers fade, to give the leaves a chance to develop: they’ll bloom again next year.

Choose a flower to suit your style: Big red trumpets are traditional and beautiful. White flowers with a thin red margin or bold red stripes have a crisp and tailored look. Extravagant double-flowering amaryllis are for extroverts. Miniature amaryllis are especially charming, and perhaps more suitable for small spaces, but you can still make a big statement with them, especially if you display a collection of miniatures in a single pot or in several small pots on a tabletop.

“There are so many different things you can do,” van den Berg-Ohms says. “It’s amazing how nature can create flowers like that. I’ve been growing them for years, and I still get blown away by them.”

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