By Linda Naeve
Iowa State University Extension
Nearly everyone enjoys receiving flowers or plants to recognize or celebrate a special occasion. However, there are times when sending and receiving flowers are not convenient or practical due to poor weather, inappropriate location or timing. There is a flower that is an exception - the amaryllis. It is a live, flowering plant that can be boxed, gift wrapped, and enjoyed a few weeks or a month later and, possibly, kept alive and going for years after that.
Amaryllis bulbs make nice gifts because they are easy to find for sale this time of year, in grocery stores, discount stores and garden centers, at very affordable prices - $10 to $15 for single bulbs or “kits” that include the bulb, soil and pots. This may be why amaryllis have grown in popularity in recent years. According to the Netherlands Bulb Information Center, amaryllis bulb production has more than doubled worldwide since the late 1990’s. The bulbs are grown commercially in Holland, Brazil, South Africa and Israel.
The popularity and enjoyment of amaryllis not only comes from the beauty of the large, bright, lily-like flowers, it comes from watching the strong, stout stem grow out of the bulb into a tall, blooming plant in just a few weeks. They are fascinating and fun to grow for gardeners and non-gardeners of all ages. Amaryllis offer an excellent, hands-on learning opportunity for children to plant and watch grow. The bulbs are very large, easy to handle and plant, and begin to grow soon after planting.
Although amaryllis flowers resemble lilies, they are not even close relatives. The amaryllis plants that we force into bloom belong to the Hippeastrum genus in the Amaryllidaceae family. They originated in the tropical areas of South America, thus are tender perennials and grown as houseplants. Amaryllis are typically sold as bulbs. When potted and forced into bloom, long, strap-like leaves and one or more tall, thick floral stalks topped with two to six large flowers emerge from the bulb. Cultivars are available with blooms of red, white, pink, orange, salmon and bi-colored (mostly whites with pink or red flushes). Amaryllis flower stalks grow to a height of 18- to 36-inches, depending on the cultivar, the country in which the bulb was produced and forcing conditions.
Amaryllis are nearly foolproof and can be grown successfully by anyone, regardless of the color of their thumb. It is a simple three-step process.
1. Planting. Start with large, firm bulbs that show no signs of shriveling or decay. Plant individual bulbs in a pot that is only an inch or two larger in diameter than the bulb, such as a 6-inch diameter pot. Use fresh, well-drained potting soil. Set the bulb so that about a third of it is exposed above the soil. The bulb should not touch the edge of the pot or another bulb.
2. Care. After planting, water the soil thoroughly with lukewarm water. Set the plant in a warm, bright location. Keep the soil moist, but not wet. Don't overwater; once per week is usually adequate.
3. Bloom time. Amaryllis will bloom about six to eight weeks after the bulb is planted. Once the flowers open, move the plant out of the sun and to a cooler location to extend the bloom time. It may be necessary to stake the flower stalk if it becomes top heavy. This may occur if the plant was grown in a poorly lit location or if the soil has been allowed to go dry. After the flowers fade, the plant can be discarded or saved to force into bloom next year.
To save the bulb, cut the floral stalk off about an inch above the bulb after the flowers fade. Water the plant and set it where it gets bright light to keep the foliage growing for 6 to 8 months. After the threat of frost is past in the spring, amaryllis can be set outside or planted in a shady garden location; bring them back indoors in late summer. While they are actively growing, fertilize amaryllis about once a month with a complete analysis soluble plant food. Gradually withhold water as the foliage starts to yellow and die back. Allow the foliage to brown and dry completely then leave the bulb in the pot and set it on its side in a dark location in your basement. Ignore it for two to three months.
Amaryllis bulbs can be forced back into bloom by repotting them in fresh soil and repeating the three-step process. A gift of an amaryllis can bring gardeners a few weeks to several years of enjoyment.