KODIAK — When I was a young tomboy, sporting a pixie haircut, I spent many a summer afternoon frolicking in a neighbor’s swimming pool. There was something about being suspended in a liquid medium that was magic to me. So much so, that one day I became obsessed with staying underwater as long as possible. I even believed I could breathe underwater like a fish. Maybe it had something to do with being a Pisces.
I had a plan. So, one day, after paddling to the deep end of the pool, I spotted a heavy weight resting on the bottom. I dove down and picked it up. “Now,” I thought, with keen anticipation, “I’ll just sit here and breathe like a fish.”
There I sat, opening and closing my mouth, like one of the goldfish in the glass bowl back home. It wasn’t long before my lungs began to ache. Disappointed, I dropped the weight, pushed off from the bottom and broke through the surface like a cork shooting out of a champagne bottle.
A LEAF OF FAITH
How on earth does this story relate to amaryllis flowers? Sometimes you just need to try new things, with faith, with no attachment to outcome. Case in point: the first time I purchased an amaryllis bulb packed in one of those bright red boxes, I was skeptical. It weighed next to nothing. I turned the box and read the directions. “Just add water,” convinced me to give it a try.
If I had to choose an official holiday flower, I’d lean towards the amaryllis. Certainly, over a poinsettia. All I need to do is visualize how pathetic a poinsettia will look after a few weeks in our house, with too little sunlight and desert-like conditions.
Amaryllis plants, on the other hand, hold onto their tropical look much longer. With their large, trumpet-shaped flowers poised high on sturdy green stems surrounded by leaves, amaryllis bulbs are easy to keep looking fresh. Plus, with little effort, you can coax them to rebloom year after year, as I’ll share in a minute.
THE FLOWER THAT SPARKLES
Thanks to breeders, amaryllises come in a variety of colors and patterns--red, pink, white, salmon, even green. Many varieties now boast stripes, edging or veining. And because they require so little care, grow with amazing speed and put on such a colorful show, they should be on everyone’s Winter Survival Plan. (The name “amaryllis” comes from the Greek word amarysso, meaning “to sparkle.”)
Here’s something to consider: Yes, you can buy single, pre-potted bulbs, but if you want to get an early start on the bloom, then consider potting-up your own bulbs.
Here is a step-by-step guide to grow your own amaryllis:
1. More is better: Consider planting several bulbs in a container.
2. Select bulbs that are solid and free of bruises or mold.
3. Size matters: Larger bulbs produce more flowers).
4. Before planting, soak the bulb in room temperature water for a few hours.
5. Snuggle them together: Choose a container (lined basket, a small bucket, a mosaic flowerpot, a colander or a soup tureen) that’s not much larger than the grouping of bulbs.
6. Fill container with good quality potting soil.
7. Nestle the bulbs into the soil, but only up to their necks so its “shoulders” remain above the soil line.
8. Top-dress the soil with stones, marbles, moss, pine cones, polished pebbles or decorative gravel and place it in a bright window.
9. Keep the soil barely moist until the stem appears, and then gradually water it more often. Do not overwater.
10. Once the flowers start to open, move it out of direct sunlight and to a cooler location (if possible) so flowers last longer. When the individual flowers fade, simply trim them off.
TRICKING AN AMARYLLIS TO BLOOM NEXT YEAR
Amaryllis plants live in the tropics (9 months of high humidity followed by 3 months of drought), so you need to fool it into thinking it never left home.
After the plant is done flowering, trim off the withered flower stalks--not the leaves--from the stem. When the stem starts to sag, cut it back to the top of the bulb.
Move it to the sunniest location you can, or supplement with a plant light. Keep it evenly moist and feed it every month or so. The key is to provide enough sunlight, water, and fertilizer through the summer to allow leaves to fully develop and grow.
In August, when the leaves begin to yellow, cut them back to about two inches from the top of the bulb.
At this point (are you still with me?) set your amaryllis in a cool (40-50 degrees), dark place such as your fridge for a minimum of six weeks.
If you’re short on space, you can remove the bulb(s) from the soil. Mark your calendar. After six weeks, remove the bulb and prepare it for re-blooming. A rule of [green] thumb: Plant bulbs in fresh potting soil eight weeks before you would like them to bloom. So, if you want a table centerpiece on Christmas eve, you’ll want to plant the bulbs in mid-October. Place it in a sunny location and keep the soil evenly moist.
With care, you can encourage an amaryllis flower to brighten your winter year after year. You just need to have a little faith, like a little girl who tried to breathe underwater like fish. “Faith,” says Voltaire, means “believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe.”
Marion Owen is co-author of the New York Times bestseller, Chicken Soup for the Gardener’s Soul. For more gardening, photography and recipe tips, sign up for Marion’s email newsletter at marionowenalaska.com.