Amaryllis: A showstopping holiday bloomer

“Plants make thoughtful gifts at this time of the year, or simply represent a good way of rewarding yourself for an accomplishment,” said University of Missouri Extension horticulturist David Trinklein.

Buyers can choose amaryllis that are already bursting in bloom, but Trinklein prefers giving bulbs that bloom in the dreariest part of winter. The bulbs also make a good gift for children as a beginning horticulture project.

Most amaryllis today are hybrids developed by the Dutch. They are selected for their huge, showy flowers and forcing ease. Vigorous bulbs can produce up to six perfectly round flowers per flower stalk. The blooms can be 6 to 8 inches in diameter.

“Amaryllis are the cure for the winter blues,” Trinklein said. “Production for the hobbyist is relatively straightforward.”

Choose healthy bulbs with original roots intact. Plant bulbs in a well-drained, highly organic potting mix that retains adequate moisture. A mixture of sphagnum peat, vermiculite and perlite works well. Maintain the mix in a slightly acid state.

Choose containers that are at least 2 inches wider than the diameter of the bulb. Keep the growing medium moist, but don’t let water stand for extended periods, except for severely root-bound plants. Feed according to label instructions with a complete, water-soluble fertilizer after flowers bloom.

Tropical by nature, amaryllis responds well to high temperatures: at least 70 degrees during the day and 60 degrees at night. Avoid temperatures below 50 degrees. Plant bulbs at least six weeks before you want them to bloom.

Amaryllis, like Christmas cacti, can outlive their caretakers if cared for properly, Trinklein said. After they have bloomed, keep them indoors until it warms outside. Put the pot on the patio or deck, and water and feed the plant regularly throughout the summer.

For the plant to re-bloom, it must be forced into a period of dormancy. Labor Day is a good time to begin this process. Withhold water from the plant and let the leaves wither and dry. After this happens, remove the dead leaves and move the bulb into a cool area inside. To bring the plant out of dormancy, water it and place it in a well-lit location in the home. Do this about six to eight weeks before you want the plant to bloom.

Amaryllis bulbs tend to multiply and need to be separated periodically. “Amaryllis are somewhat like guppies,” Trinklein said. Amaryllis owners can use the extra bulbs as gifts or to increase their own collections.

Bulbs also are available in “instant” flowering kits at garden centers and big-box stores. The bulb, a container and a compressed peat moss pellet make these kits easy for growers. The bulbs already have gone through dormancy and will start to grow when planted and watered. Amaryllis already in bloom are available at florists during the holiday season.

Striking amaryllis blooms come in many colors, Trinklein said. “Red Lion,” the most famous amaryllis of them all, boasts cheerful red flowers. “Goliath,” another popular cultivar, is prized for orange-red flowers that are huge even by amaryllis standards. Double-flowered cultivars such as “Red Peacock” also are available.

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