Yes, it’s that time of year: head into any store, even a supermarket, and you’re likely to find displays of amaryllis bulbs (botanical name: Hippeastrum). This huge bulb produces trumpet-shaped flowers and is very easy to grow and flower… the first time, at any rate. Since they take about three to eight weeks to bloom from the time you pot them up, if you want amaryllis flowers for Christmas, this is a good time to start.
Amaryllis bulbs already contain the buds of the flowers to come when you buy them, so even black thumbs will have no trouble getting them to bloom. In fact, even if you don’t pot the bulb up and just leave it lying on a shelf somewhere, it will still bloom. How easy is that?
Growing an amaryllis is also a great little project for introducing children to gardening. Even 5-year olds will be impressed by the speed at which the plant grows.
Picking a Winning Bulb
An amaryllis bulb is most often sold in a kit that includes a pot, potting soil and the bulb itself. And that does work, but… the bulbs sold in kits are usually lesser-quality bulbs that give fewer and smaller flowers compared to dry bulbs. Also, kits often include pots that are too small to adequately support the bulb, don’t have drainage holes (which makes watering tricky) or are so light the top-heavy plant tends to flop over. So even if you do purchase a kit (and they’re all you’re likely find in supermarkets, box stores, and other non-specialized venues), you’d do better to at least pot the bulb up in a more appropriate pot. More about that below.
The best quality bulbs are kept for bulk sale – open displays of dry bulbs – for obvious reasons. Rather than dealing with a closed box where you can’t even see the bulb you’re buying, you actually get to hand pick your bulb… and would you pick a skinny, weak-looking, second-quality bulb over a huge, heavy, robust, top-quality one? In spite of its superior quality, a dry bulb will usually cost less than a kit, at least in most stores. Locally you aren’t likely to find dry bulbs anywhere but in nurseries and garden centers. Mail-order nurseries will also ship them to your home if you order early enough.
Choose the color and shape of the flower from the photo that accompanies the display: amaryllis flowers can be red, pink, salmon, white, yellow, green or bi- or tricolor, single or double, large or small.
Look for a big bulb, firm to the touch: it will produce the most flowers. A very large bulb will surely give two flower stalks, sometimes three. Also, take a good look at the bulb at the time of purchase: if you see not one but two or three flower buds just poking out of the bulb (see photo), you have a winner! Each visible bud is the first sign of a future flower stalk,
Of course, you can also buy an amaryllis that is already potted and in the process of flowering, but that will cost you more… and you’ll be paying top dollar for a plant whose flowering is perhaps already in decline.
Potting It Up
Once you have a bulb on hand, look for an appropriate pot. The belief that the amaryllis likes to be pot-bound is a myth. They have a substantial root system and it needs room to grow, choose a pot at least 2 to 3 inches larger than the bulb. It should also have one or more drainage holes. If it’s made of a heavier material, like clay, that will help hold the plant up. If not, don’t worry: you can insert a lighter pot into a heavy cache-pot later.
Half fill the pot with houseplant potting mix (if you moisten it ahead of time, it will be easier to work with) and center the bulb on the mix, spreading its thick roots out somewhat. Now fill the pot with more mix to about 1 inch (2 cm) or so below the rim and press down firmly to settle the bulb in its pot. This will result in the bulb being only half-buried, which is great because that leaves more space in the potting mix for the bulb’s future root development. Place the pot on a saucer or in a heavier cache-pot and water lightly.
You can also grow amaryllis without soil, in stones, gravel, or marbles, typically using a transparent container. If so, you’ll need a pot without a drainage hole so the pot’s bottom can act as a water reservoir, as the substrates mentioned hold no moisture. There are even special amaryllis vases designed to hold an amaryllis bulb above water using no stones at all. Be aware, though, that if you don’t use potting soil, this will weaken the bulb and it will only be good for the compost bin after it has bloomed.
Finally, a quick note for our friends in the South: in zones 9 to 11, you can simply plant amaryllis bulbs in the garden, just barely covering the bulb, and they will then act like perennials, coming back year after year and sometimes even blooming several times a year.
Water sparingly at first, then more abundantly as the flower stem grows. Let the soil guide you: water thoroughly when it is dry to the touch.
Curiously, the long, narrow, strap-shaped leaves often don’t appear until the plant is in bloom or even after it has finished flowering.
Amaryllis are perfectly adapted to average indoor temperatures of between 15 and 80˚F (18-27˚C) and can even tolerate temperatures down to 40˚C (5˚C) if necessary. The soil should be slightly moist at all times. A sunny location is ideal, since intense light will lead to a shorter, stronger flower stalk less likely to need staking.
The bulb will start to flower in as little as three weeks, but more likely five to eight. If its flowering is coming along too quickly for your liking, you can delay it by placing the bulb in a cool spot. If you want to speed up its bloom, increase the temperature.
While the plant is blooming, don’t hesitate to move it to a spot where it is more visible, even if gets less light for a while. A few weeks of lower light won’t hurt the plant too much.
After plant stops blooming, though, move it back into the sunniest spot possible, at least if you want to see it bloom next year. You can cut the flower stalk after the blooms fade if it bothers you, but for the health of the plant, it’s better to leave it standing until it dies back on its own. Then you can remove it. That’s because, as long as it’s still green, it will carry on photosynthesis and thus helps feed the bulb.
Note that it is possible that your amaryllis blooms again out of season, maybe later in the winter or spring or even summer. If so, just enjoy the repeat performance!
Getting Your Amaryllis to Bloom Again
Let me be brutally honest and say that, while getting an amaryllis to bloom the first time is almost a sure thing, the same can’t be said of future blooms. So if you just want to toss the bulb into the compost bin after it blooms and buy a new one, that’s perfectly all right. Still, most people can get their amaryllis to rebloom if they put a little effort into it. Your goal will be to try and get the bulb, which will have shrunk considerably in size after it blooms, to plump up again.
To do so, you’ll need plenty of sun, regular feedings, and a modicum of other care. Here’s a link that shows what to do when your amaryllis stops blooming.