This might seem a bit strange to say but the Amaryllis is probably more suited for St. Valentine’s Day than Christmas; the reason being the Greek myth behind it which involves a nymph, Amaryllis, who falls helplessly in love with an indifferent shepherd named Alteo. On the advice of the Oracle of Delphi, Amaryllis pierces her heart with a golden arrow, shedding drops of blood around his cottage to prove her love for him over a period of one month. On the thirtieth day a crimson flower grows from the drops of blood, winning the heart of Alteo, who also happened to have a passion for gardening. Talk about being hard to get, but Amaryllis enticed her man in the end and we inherited one of our favourite Christmas traditions.
Choosing the Right Bulb
Amaryllis has been a part of our holiday festivities for decades but if you are looking to introduce it to your Christmas décor, then now is the time to choose one. The reason behind this is that the bulbs take an average of 6 to 8 weeks to flower, so if you want it in bloom for December the 25th you have to pot them up early enough. Amaryllis bulbs are graded by size which is the circumference measured in centimetres. The larger the bulb the more flowers you will get, with 26/28cm averaging 1 stem with 3-4 flowers and 34/36cm producing 3 stems with 4-5 flowers per stem on average. Some cultivars like ‘Red Lion’ are naturally large and rather famous for producing huge blossoms, while others such as the Spider or Cybister group have orchid-like blooms and smaller bulbs. There are many types of Amaryllis to choose from including bicolors, double-flowered and nymphs but I tend to gravitate towards the old-fashioned red and white singles, with a few pinks thrown in for contrast. Some tried and true varieties to choose from include ‘Apple Blossom’ (pink-white bicolor), ‘Mount Blanc’ (pure white), ‘Rilona’ (salmon), ‘Minerva’ (red-white bicolor) and ‘Red Pearl’ (deep crimson), although there are over 600 named cultivars available. If you find yourself with less planting time then choose from the Santa’s Little Helpers line which have been specially treated to bloom in just 4-6 weeks from planting and come in varieties named after Saint Nick’s reindeer, including the very red ‘Rudolph’.
Amaryllis "Apple Blossom", Pre-packaged bulbs are easy to send in the mail, Amaryllis 'Mount Blanc', Amaryllis 'Red Pearl'
Waxed Amaryllis Bulbs
Another more recent iteration of Amaryllis bulbs are those that have been waxed; meaning they are not meant to be planted. The waxed Amaryllis are self-sustaining, with enough stored energy to produce 1-2 flower stalks with up to 4 blooms each without growing roots. The downside here is that they are single use, and generally can’t be kept from season to season as they expend themselves for a solitary bloom period. The benefit is that no potting is necessary, which includes all that messy soil and watering, making it easy to incorporate them into a variety of Christmas decor. A coiled wire embedded in the base keeps them upright so they can be placed in a tall glass vase with some moss and mini-lights or set into a tabletop arrangement. The wax covering comes in a variety of colours with deep red being the most popular, although the metallic tones (silver, gold and copper) look fabulous in a low bowl set on a formal dining table. There is even a novelty reindeer head incarnation this year, with the ascending flower stalks looking just like horns, which is fun for the kids. These also make great Christmas presents for novice gardeners as they are guaranteed to bloom and they travel well in the mail for those long distance gifts for family.
Potting Your Amaryllis Bulb
Start by choosing a bulb that is plump and firm, with some fleshy roots at the base. Then you want to select a container that is 1-2” wider than your bulb and several inches taller, preferably a heavier ceramic or terracotta pot that will help counterbalance the often top-heavy Amaryllis. Remove any dead or dried roots and repot using an indoor container mix, leaving the top third of the bulb exposed. Water well to settle the soil properly but do so sparingly afterwards until the bulb is actively growing. Place the pot in bright indirect light in a spot with an ambient air temperature of 60-70F, as heat is necessary for stem development. Water regularly once growth is enacted and remember to turn the pot every few days to keep the plant from leaning. You can topdress the soil surface with moss or ornamental pebbles to finish the display. If you are using smaller bulbs, try planting three together in a larger solitary pot (separating them slightly so they don’t touch) for a fabulous floral display.
Once your Amaryllis starts flowering, you can deadhead the individual spent blooms one at a time. If the flower stalks start falling over you can either stake them or use a cut flower, which last an average of 2 weeks. Don’t remove a retained flowering stalk until it has yellowed and started dying back; then cut it to about an inch. Water and feed your Amaryllis with a liquid houseplant fertilizer during growth in spring and summer, as this is the time when it is accumulating energy for its next bloom period. Around mid-August start withholding water and allow the plant foliage to dieback naturally and go dormant. Then store the pot or bulb in cool, dark, dry place (basement or garage) for a minimum of eight weeks. After this you are ready to start the process all over, keeping in mind that these are long-lived bulbs (up to 75 years) that can be passed down from generation to generation. If you are having trouble getting your Amaryllis to rebloom then the likely culprits are a lack of a rest or dormant period, not enough light when in growth or insufficient fertilizer.
Something to look forward to next spring is the introduction of hardy (USDA zone 7) Sonatini Amaryllis that you can grow outdoors, including ‘Balentino’ (red with a white throat) and ‘Pink Rascal’. Expect these in the garden centre around early March. While we’re on the subject of seasonal bulbs, don’t forget to pick-up a few Paperwhites as their spicy fragrance and elegant blooms add ambience to any Christmas soiree.