They were everywhere around the holidays—at groceries and big box stores— but despite their ubiquitous availability, Amaryllis can still surprise us. First, consider their name—it turns out they might not really be Amaryllis at all. Although Carl Linnaeus created the epithet Amaryllis belladonna in 1753, it was originally applied to both South African and South American species. Debate about the correct nomenclature continued among botanists on both sides of the Atlantic until 1987 when the 14th International Botanical Congress decided that the term “Amaryllis” applied only to the South African species, otherwise known as “naked ladies.”
But common usage has continued to apply the name to the allied genus, Hippeastrum. Most “Amaryllis” we grow today for winter bloom are hybrids of Hippeastrum species native to regions of South America where the growing conditions are typically humid and warm for most of the year, with a short cool and dry season. Providing these conditions guarantees success with your own bulbs.
Plant in containers with holes, using a light soil mix, and leave 1/3 of the bulb exposed above the soil. Place in a sunny, warm location and water sparingly. Once their flowers have begun to open, Amaryllis don’t require your sunniest window. In fact, blooms last longer in diffuse light at temperatures near 60°. Keep pots barely moist; avoid wetting the exposed portion of the bulb when watering. After bloom, cut flower stalks and increase light and water. Monthly applications of liquid fertilizer contribute to the development of strong leaves– avoid letting the soil dry out. Sunrooms and greenhouses are ideal for Amaryllis at this point, although south-facing windows work too.
After the last frost, move the plants outdoors in the sun. Watered every day, they can remain in containers — but if you’d like a really nice big bulb for next year, and less trouble too–plant in the ground. I have tucked Amaryllis around perennials and shrubs, where the strappy green foliage continues to grow all summer. They can remain outdoors until frost. Then bring inside to a dark, cool spot. This dormant period should last between 6-8 weeks.
For blooms by Christmas, dormancy must begin by mid-August—since the ideal storage temperature is 55°, this isn’t always possible. If you really must have holiday blooms, consider purchasing bulbs grown in South Africa– they’ve already had sufficient dormancy.
Providing appropriate conditions for your Amaryllis will result in increased bulb size and even multiplication–large bulbs can have three flower stalks! Check johnscheepers.com for a particularly dazzling selection of Amaryllis species and hybrids.