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Hamptons Life

Oct 21, 2019 10:44 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Grow And Regrow Amaryllis To Brighten Dull Winters

Oct 21, 2019 11:56 AM

Could I interest you in a plant that will flower during the Christmas holiday season, will delight your guests, will flower again next year and possibly for decades into the future? It has a somewhat phallic beginning, withers to a dormant bulb on demand, will love being outdoors in the summer and yet will challenge your horticultural skills?

Could I further entice you by noting that it’s native to South Africa and South America and yet most of the ones we grow come from Holland? Well, what if I told you that it’s probably the largest bulb you’ll ever plant but also one that delights children as well as adults and connoisseurs of the magic of nature?

Welcome to the world of the amaryllis. Once available only in white, pink and red, there are now hundreds of varieties of this bulb in a variety of heights and flower styles. While as little as two years ago you could find only a dozen or so varieties, you can now easily find 70 in various colors, bicolors, stripes, shapes and sizes. Plant breeders and the Dutch have done marvelous things with this bulb, and now’s the time to buy as well as plant them for winter blooms.

But the amaryllis that we’re most familiar with is actually Hippeastrum, which is primarily grown in Holland, though some still come from South Africa. There are about 90 species in this group and as many as 600 cultivars, but we only grow less than 80 of them as forced indoor plants. The bulbs are from 3 to 8 inches in diameter and are widely available through catalogs and at garden centers at this time of the year. But the clock is ticking and if you want these flowering for the holidays now is the time to buy and plant.

The glory of these bulbs is their spectacular flowers that sit atop 2- to 3-foot-tall thick tubular stems in a wide range of flower colors and bicolors with the flower forms being single- or double-petaled. There are a few miniature varieties and some novelties as well. As I’ve warned in the past, growing these can be a wonderfully addictive hobby that will brighten the dullest of winter days.

Just about anyone can grow this plant once. All you need to do is plant the bulb in a pot (though you can buy them preplanted), give it some warmth, bright light, water and about eight weeks after you “start” them, they flower. The bulbs we purchase are in a dormant state and the warmth and moist soil will stimulate root and stem growth. Usually the stems or stalk emerge first, but some foliage may develop from the bulb as well.

Flowering can last from two to three weeks. Depending on the quality of the bulb (as in size) you should get two to four stems with four or more flowers the first year on each of the stems. Some flowers produce lots of pollen. If this is a problem, simply cut the anthers (where the pollen forms) off and throw them away. As soon as the flowers fade, cut the flowers off and then the fun begins. Huh?

This is where you get your horticultural challenge and, hopefully, your gardener’s badge of merit. If you treat your amaryllis right from this point onward, it will flower again next year and for years to come. In fact, if you’re really good, your bulb will develop pups or tiny side bulbs that can be separated from the mother bulb, grown on and they, in turn, will flower — but not for several years.

So, you spent $15 to over $30 for a really special bulb, maybe a Dancing Queen, Royal Velvet or the more common Apple Blossom, and it performed as advertised and you want it to flower again next year. What to do?

You’ll notice several flat and narrow leaves emerging from the bulb after flowering. These leaves can get up to 18 inches long and they need plenty of bright light and daytime temperatures in the 70s. During the warmer summer months the bulbs can go outdoors and the foliage will remain until late next summer when you’ll begin to cut back on the water and start forcing the bulb into dormancy. From the time you cut the flowers off until next summer, the plant will need to be fed. The combination of the leaves being healthy and feeding the plants enable the next flower buds to form inside the bulb. The healthier the plant, the more magnificent the flowers will be next year.

The plant will need to be forced into dormancy, and it needs a dormant period of at least six weeks when it gets no water, stays a bit cooler and out of the sun. After that six-week dormancy the process begins all over again. The bulb stays in the same pot (they like to be tight), water is slowly added over a period of a couple of weeks and in about nine to10 weeks you should have your flowers back and the cycle has been completed. But now that you’ve been successful you can do it all over again and by all means buy more bulbs as you gain more confidence.

A couple of important things to remember in your glow of success: Count backwards! Remember that your bulb will need a minimum six-week dormant period (a dark closet is great for this) then eight to 10 weeks to flower. So if you want flowers in December you need to have your bulbs dormant 16 weeks earlier, as in August.

After a couple of years small bulbs or pups will develop on the side of your parent bulb. At the end of the summer these can be easily separated and potted up in small pots. A 1-inch bulb will mature and flower in about three years — but still needs to go through the same growing cycle with a dormant period.

If this is your first try, start out with maybe three to five bulbs. Shop for bulbs in bulk displays in garden centers or buy them from a reputable retailer. The largest selection (and premium prices) come from the White Flower Farm, but many other mail-order bulb dealers have selections. The largest bulbs, which produce the most number of spikes and flowers, are 8 inches in diameter (and larger) and will cost from $15 to $35. Avoid the cost of prepotted bulbs as amaryllis are easy to pot in any peat-based potting soil.

Instructions are easy to come by online for both growing and reblooming, but basically you want to plant in a pot that’s no more than 2 inches in diameter larger than the bulb. Any good soilless potting mix will work, and I think you should stick to clay pots as this reduces any risk from rotting if you’re heavy-handed on the watering. The bulbs should be planted high in the pot with about an inch or so of the bulb, or nose, sitting above the soil. Plant them deeper and they will rot.

These bulbs also make great gifts, but it’s hard to find them at the holidays. You may find some online retailers that will take your orders now and keep the bulbs dormant until December shipping. And another word of caution: Amaryllis can be addictive. I started with one and my collection grew to over 40 when I had to go cold turkey or get thrown out of the house. But what a great way to go. Keep growing.

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