Amaryllis, the gift that keeps on giving

It has been a relatively mild, late fall, as we approach the winter solstice. No significant snowfall, or ice to speak of and some unseasonably warm and windy days last week, as well. I know this because I stream the local Albany news from here in sunny Florida. I try to keep up with your weather, but I certainly don’t miss it! I am very happy to be wearing a T-shirt and spending at least two days a week boating on the Gulf of Mexico.

This is the time of year when many of us are struggling to come up with holiday gift ideas. Giving someone the same Christmas gift every year for many years might lead others to question your memory, or creativity, but there are some gifts that are really appreciated and may be enjoyed indefinitely for many more years. Like candy canes and chocolate, they may even become a tradition in your family.

Every year I get an Amaryllis bulb for my daughter, who lives in sunny Florida. She plants them outside in her back yard and they bloom faithfully for her every year outdoors. They are not at all hardy in our region and must be kept indoors when temperatures drop below 50 or 60. Most Amaryllis plants are more correctly called “Hippeastrum.” There are more than 90 species and 600 cultivars.

These true bulbs were brought to Europe in the 1700s and have been known to bloom for up to 75 years. These beautiful plants produce from one to several huge, brilliant colored, lily-like flowers on a single, sturdy flower stalk. The flowers may be as large as 10 inches in diameter and they come in various shades of red, white, orange, pink or striped combinations of these colors. When the flower stalk appears, it grows so rapidly, you can almost see it grow. The warmer the environment, the quicker they grow and the flowers generally last for about three weeks indoors.

Amaryllis bulbs are sold in several different sizes. Most are as large as an orange or even bigger. In general, the larger the bulb, the bigger and more numerous the flowers. Prices may range for less than $10, from a big box store to $25 or more, for a really spectacular bulb. I suggest you start your shopping at a local garden center. You can also order them mail order from several companies, but with supply issues being a problem this winter, it might be better to try to buy it in person.

The bulbs take about a month to come into full bloom if the bulb is completely dormant when purchased. If one is started now, it will be in bloom during the dark days of February, when most northerners are in desperate need of something pretty to look at.

Buy the biggest bulb you can afford. Most amaryllis bulbs will come pre-potted in a plastic or clay pot. They like to be root bound, so it is not necessary to repot them every year. After three or four years you may need to repot.

Within a few days to a week after the initial watering, the bulb should sprout a flowering stalk that will grow very quickly. Within a month the huge flower buds will open and you will be treated to a spectacular display. Cut the individual flowers off with a sharp knife as they fade and keep the plant in full sun while in bloom. Amaryllis will flower in sun or shade when forced such as this. When all the flowers have faded cut off the flowering stalk near the base of the bulb. Long, strap-like leaves should appear next. Keep the soil moist and apply a houseplant fertilizer about once a month while the leaves are growing. Provide as much sunlight as possible. Many people put them outside in a full sun location during the summer. When the foliage begins to turn yellow and die back, omit the fertilizer and cut back on the watering. Although a cold period is not required to re-bloom, many gardeners put the bulb in a cool basement after the leaves begin to turn yellow.

About one month before the desired bloom time cut back the leaves to within an inch of the bulb. Water, drain and put the pot in a sunny location to repeat the flowering cycle. You will need to buy a bigger pot about every other year if all goes well. It is not unusual for Amaryllis bulbs to last as long as 50 years with proper care.

My daughter’s Amaryllis collection is becoming pretty impressive after so many years and I hope that they remain as important to her, as giving them to her, is to me.

Reach Bob Beyfuss at rlb14@cornell.com.

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