The amaryllis is, I think, the most beautiful and dramatic of our spring flowering bulbs. The large, striking flowers of amaryllises makes them a popular container plant nationwide. In mild winter climates like ours, however, amaryllises also can be planted outside in garden beds.
The plant we commonly call amaryllis belongs to the genus Hippeastrum. Those we grow today are mostly hybrids of several species native to South America. The St. Joseph’s lily is an old hybrid amaryllis, Hippeastrum x johnsonii, introduced in 1799. New Orleans gardeners may call all amaryllises St. Joseph lilies, but that name is more properly is applied to this old hybrid.
Modern hybrid amaryllises produce clusters of four large, trumpet-shaped flowers held up on thick stalks that grow directly from the bulbs. Bulbs typically send up one flower stalk, but larger bulbs may produce two or three stalks. The colors include shades of red, orange, pink, rose and white with many variations. While most amaryllis cultivars produce single flowers, there are also double-flowered forms.
Dormant bulbs are readily available now. When they are dried and forced into dormancy for shipping purposes, the bulbs are triggered to bloom during the winter rather than their normal spring bloom time. If you plant bulbs you purchase now outside into the garden, they will send up their flower stalks this winter when the flowers are likely to be damaged by cold. As a result, bulbs should be grown in pots and allowed to bloom indoors this winter before planting them in the garden in the spring.
So, amaryllis bulbs purchased now should be planted into pots. Use a good quality potting soil and plant the bulb with the neck that protrudes from the top of the bulb above the soil surface. The pot should be large enough so that there is about a 1-inch clearance between the pot rim and the bulb. Clay or plastic pots may be used. Because an amaryllis in bloom can be somewhat top-heavy, clay pots provide a little more stability. You can also buy them pre-planted in pots ready to grow.
Place the pot in a sunny window (the more sun the better) and keep the soil evenly moist. When the flower stalk begins to emerge, rotate the pot about one-half turn every few days so it will grow straight. Otherwise, it will grow toward the window and look awkward. If you provide your amaryllis with too little light, the flower stalk will grow excessively tall and may even fall over. Flowering generally occurs about seven to 10 weeks after planting this time of year.
Sometime after the flower stalk has emerged, leaves will grow from the top of the bulb. After the flowers have faded cut the stalk at the point where it emerges from the bulb, but do not cut any foliage. Keep the plant inside and continue to provide plenty of light or the leaves will be weak and floppy. Water regularly when the soil begins to feel dry. It is not really necessary to fertilize your amaryllis during this time.
When April arrives, it’s time to plant your bulbs into the garden. Amaryllis planted in the garden this coming spring will get into their natural cycle and bloom each year in April.
Care in the landscape
If you are growing amaryllis in your garden now, you know just how carefree they are. They thrive in any reasonably good garden soil as long as drainage is good. A spot that receives part sun (about six hours of direct sun and then shade in the afternoon) is the ideal location, but I have seen amaryllis thrive in full sun to part shade.
Once planted and established, amaryllis can be left alone for years. A light sprinkling of a general purpose fertilizer in March and June and watering during unusually dry weather is all they need. Beds should be mulched with a couple of inches of pine straw, leaves or other similar material to help reduce weeds and conserve moisture. Increase the thickness of the mulch to three or four inches during the winter to help protect the bulbs from freeze damage. After the flowers fade, cut the flower stalk back to where it emerges from the bulb.
Over many years, clumps of bulbs can become overcrowded. Amaryllis bulbs produce offsets, or small bulbs, from their bases, which grow larger each year. As the years go by, the crowding of the bulbs may cause a decrease in flowering due to competition. Fall is a good time to divide them. Dividing is also a great way to propagate your amaryllises.
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If needed, divide your amaryllis now. Lift the clumps of bulbs carefully so as not to damage the bulbs in the process. Try to get most of the roots attached to the bulbs. I like to use a garden fork as it will not cut through the roots or bulbs. Separate the smaller bulbs from the larger bulbs and put them in two piles.
Trim off any yellow or unhealthy foliage, but leave healthy, green foliage attached. While the bulbs are out of the bed, take the opportunity to turn the soil and then incorporate some compost, rotted manure or peat moss to enrich the soil. Don’t allow the roots to dry out while you do this.
Replant the largest bulbs back into their area until it is filled. Amaryllis bulbs are planted with the narrow top of the bulb (or “neck”) and the top one-third of the bulb exposed above the soil surface. Do not plant the bulbs too deep or flowering will decrease. Bulbs are generally spaced about eight to 12 inches apart and show best when planted in clumps of three or more. Mulch the bed to provide cold protection for the bulbs this winter.
The smaller amaryllis bulbs can be planted into another area where you want them to grow or be given to friends. Some may bloom next spring or in the next year or two depending on their size.
Purchase amaryllis bulbs now to brighten your home during the holiday season, but don’t forget that they can also become a wonderful part of your outdoor garden as well.
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Dan Gill is a retired consumer horticulture specialist with the LSU AgCenter. He hosts the “Garden Show” on WWL-AM Saturdays at 9 a.m. Email gardening questions to [email protected]