Marion Owen

Amaryllis bulbs are a sign of Christmas even more than Poinsettias are. (Marion Owen photo)

Never mind the tinsel and fake Christmas trees: When boxes of Amaryllis bulbs start showing up in the stores, I know Christmas is around the corner. And if you treat the flowers right, they’ll bloom next Christmas.

The baseball-sized bulbs that arrive in a colorful boxes are the perfect gift for winter-weary friends and relatives. In fact, the Greek word “amarysso” or “amarussein” from which “amaryllis” derives, means to sparkle, twinkle or shine.

Shine, they do, and fast. These exotic houseplants begin growing quickly, sending up tall stalks topped with huge trumpet-shaped blossoms.

Just add water and green leaves appear; then a stem, followed by three or more enormous white, pink, red or striated flowers. All the actors appear as if on cue, the result of careful timing back on the bulb farm where the plants are “forced” into a state of readiness.

Most of us think of Amaryllis as just big red trumpet flowers, but Dutch breeders have worked overtime to develop many more variations to choose from. Red and white striped, for example. Now there’s pink, peach and coral, too. ‘Picotee’ is snow white with a thin red line on the margin of each petal.

Another group are the nymph series, which produce shorter, stockier stems that are less top-heavy when in bloom; an issue for drafty homes or where there’s a mischievous cat about.

Nymphs also look nicer in smaller apartments, even desks. Some nymphs have double flowers and more petals that look like a camellia blossom. The plant breeders couldn’t stop there. One type of amaryllis, called “Cybister” have spidery, orchid-like flowers.

How to care for an amaryllis

If you’re a lucky recipient of an Amaryllis, it usually arrives in a box. But if the bulb isn’t already pre-potted, place it in a container with two inches of general purpose potting soil. Leave about one-third of the bulb exposed. If you bury it completely, you’re likely to get more leaves than flowers.

Water the soil until moist or at least until the water drains out the bottom. Blooms will emerge in a month or two and can last for weeks. Most amaryllis bulbs provide two flower stalks the first year.

Once it flowers, set the plant anywhere in the house. Just remember, the warmer the room, the faster the flowers develop and expire. You can work this to your advantage: To coax plants into blooming quickly in time for the holidays, put the pot in a sunny window. To delay flowering, keep it in a cooler spot. Once blooms appear, keep the plant away from heat sources such as wood stoves, vents and registers.

Next year’s bloom

If you like a challenge, try overwintering your bulb for next season. It’s worth a go, because unlike the more snobbish poinsettia, it is fairly easy to get amaryllis bulbs to bloom the second year.

Start as soon as the flowers have finished blooming, cutting them right below the pod so they do not waste energy making seeds. The stems nourish the bulb, so leave them uncut until they turn yellow.

Encourage leaf growth by giving the plant as much light as possible because leaves are needed for photosynthesis. Water when the soil is slightly dry to the touch. Too soggy, and the bulb will rot. Fertilize monthly with a balanced, all-purpose organic fertilizer.

If you set the plant outside during the summer, (perhaps it’s best in a greenhouse or hoophouse) choose a spot that gets at least some afternoon shade. Come August, your amaryllis needs rest and a much-needed vacation. Let the soil dry completely, then store the pot where it is dark and cool (but not below 50 degrees F, as in a refrigerator). In two or three months (mark you calendar), retrieve the plant and cut off any lingering foliage.

Return it to its rightful place in a sunny window and resume watering, but just enough to dampen the soil. The No. 1 rule is to not let the plant sit in standing water.

Flower stalks should appear anytime from three to eight weeks later, depending on variety and other circumstances.

What about baby amaryllis bulbs?

The babies, or offsets as they are called, can be split off from the mother plant and planted, but it can take three or four years for them to reach blooming size.

While you’re waiting, treat them as you do their parents, letting them grow through the winter, spring, and early summer, then giving them a dry rest period in late summer and fall. In a few years, you might be swimming in amaryllis plants, but what a cheery and colorful conundrum to have.

Recipes and gardening tips are featured in Marion Owen’s 2014 calendar: “Flavors of Kodiak Island.” Read Marion’s latest blog postings at http://marionowen.wordpress.com. Connect with local gardeners on the Kodiak Growers or the Sustainable Kodiak Facebook page. Archived copies of Marion’s columns are posted at www.kodiakdailymirror.com. Contact Marion at mygarden@alaska.net.

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