By: Russell Stafford
Amaryllis are emblems of the winter holiday season, their bold, flamboyant flowers decorating everything from greeting cards to wrapping paper to the holiday table itself. Known botanically as Hippeastrum, they trace their origin to a number of Hippeastrum species that inhabit the anything-but-wintry forests and slopes of tropical South America. Plant hybridizers have interbred these species over the past 250 years, ultimately producing the showy-flowered, large-bulbed amaryllis hybrids that populate garden centers and bulb catalogs in fall.
Purchased amaryllis bulbs put on a lavish display with ridiculous ease. Most come from overseas growers, who have conditioned the bulbs to provide immediate gratification upon planting. Take an amaryllis bulb, half-bury it in a free-draining potting mix (such as Fafard® Natural & Organic Potting Soil with Resilience™), add water, and – voila – it happens. Plump, spear-shaped buds arise on thick fleshy stems, achieving spectacular full bloom within a few weeks after planting.
Many amaryllis are sold pre-installed in a plastic pot. More satisfactory, however, is a deep clay pot, which provides ballast to counterbalance the weight of the huge blooms. Plant the bulb with its top half exposed, to give the roots maximum growing space. Bright light and relatively cool temperatures (60 to 65 degrees F) result in stockier growth, which also discourages toppling. An east-facing windowsill is ideal.
Bringing a purchased amaryllis to bloom is a cinch. Coaxing it to repeat the performance is a trickier proposition. To rebloom, the bulb needs a period of dry rest, approximating what its ancestors experience in the wild. In their native habitats in eastern Brazil and in the foothills of the Andes, most Hippeastrum species produce flowers and foliage during the spring and summer rainy season, becoming quiescent when the weather turns drier in fall and winter. Amaryllis hybrids in cultivation require a similar wet/dry treatment. Regular watering and feeding after bloom, followed by withdrawal of water in summer, will typically trigger a new round of flowering when watering is gradually resumed in late fall. Many amaryllis fanciers move their plants to a partly shaded outdoor location after the last frost date, bringing them back inside for their dry rest period. Plants generally do best if left in their containers and repotted only when absolutely necessary (once every 4 or 5 years should do).
Hybrid amaryllis bloom in a variety of colors, sizes, and shapes. Best known are the large-flowered Dutch hybrids, with immense, wide-flaring, six-petaled blooms that owe much of their form and coloration to the red-flowered Bolivian native Hippeastrum leopoldii. Old-time favorites from this group include ‘Red Lion’ (introduced in 1958), pink-striped ‘Apple Blossom’ (1954), and white, crimson-edged ‘Picotee’ (1958). More recent introductions – such as velvety burgundy-maroon ‘Red Pearl’ and tangerine ‘Naranja’ – are gradually supplanting some of the old standbys. Also relatively new to the scene are a race of Dutch Hybrids that bloom in 4 to 6 weeks from planting, rather than the typical 8 to 10. These “Christmas-Flowering” amaryllis come in the customary range of whites, pinks, and reds.
Other hybrid groups include double-flowered Dutch Hybrids (such as purple-red-striped ‘Double Record’ and pure white ‘Ice Queen’) and miniature amaryllis. The latter have the appearance of scaled-down Dutch Hybrids, bearing 3- to 4-inch (rather than 8- to 10-inch) blooms on somewhat shorter stems (10 to 16 rather than 18 to 24 inches).
Hippeastrum aficionados have many more groups of hybrids to explore, as well as the species themselves. Selections and hybrids of the butterfly amaryllis, Hippeastrum papilio, offer several takes on its curious green and maroon, asymmetrical flowers (look for ‘Grafitti’ and ‘Papilio Improved’). Hippeastrum cybister has lent its narrow-petaled, spidery form to a growing number of hybrids including ‘Chico, ‘La Paz’, and ‘Emerald’. And trumpet-flowered amaryllis such as raspberry-striped ‘Santiago’ and candy-pink ‘Estella’ – with elongated, funnel-shaped blooms – are becoming increasingly available from bulb sellers.
Gardeners in USDA zones 7 and warmer can even try amaryllis in the garden. Hardiest of all is St. Joseph’s lily, Hippeastrum x johnsonii, whose trumpet-shaped, crimson, white-starred flowers (on 2-foot stems) have ornamented Southeast U.S. gardens since the mid-nineteenth century. So, too, have the dazzling crimson blooms of oxblood lily, Rhodophiala bifida, which look for all the world like a dwarf amaryllis (indeed, the species was formerly included among the Hippeastrum). Both make wonderful subjects for gardens from the Mid-Atlantic southward, the trumpets of oxblood lily providing a late-summer echo of St. Joseph’s lily’s spring display. Dutch Hybrids (and many other Hippeastrum hybrids and species) are candidates for gardens in the lower South, where they’ll winter over with minimal protection.
Whatever their season or place of bloom, few bulbs bring greater cheer than the members of the Hippeastrum tribe.
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