Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Off to the Amaryllis Races

It's really easy to understand why amaryllis are so wildly popular. They grow quickly once awakened from dormancy, have flowers that are the epitome of spectacular, are practically maintenance-free (can be grown in water or soil) and are just plain fun to watch! I heard people are even having amaryllis races - they all pot them the same day, then keep track of whose grows fastest, tallest, or has the most flowers. But they're so-oo-o-o easy even a tot could grow them.

Big bulbs!
My first memory of amaryllis was shopping with Mom at the florist for an azalea. I saw a box on the counter full of the biggest bulbs I had ever seen. The picture promised an amazing plant full of huge red trumpet-like flowers. I was hooked and coughed up $ 5.15 of my own money. I was so taken by the idea of this big, not-so-pretty bulb throwing up a flower spike like the picture that I would have paid double that. Remember, this was 1959 and that was weeks (plural) of allowance.

I potted the bulb upon arriving home and a few weeks later bada-boom, bada-bing, the payoff came as promised. It grew jack-in-the-beanstalk fast producing not one, but two spikes of dinner plate dahlia-sized flowers that blew me away. Too cool. I felt up to any horticultural challenge after that.

The hybridizers are having fun!
In the ensuing decades hybridizers have been busybusybusy with amazing results. The color range has been dramatically increased. Varieties now have contrasting star-burst patterns in the center. There are also doubles that resemble florists' roses, as well as dwarf cultivars with more delicate flowers.

There are plenty of articles on growing them successfully, so I'd like to share a few tidbits you may not find elsewhere.

1) They may or may not bloom for Christmas. If they've been grown in the southern hemisphere they'll have fulfilled their full dormant period and should be ready to start growing as soon as you pot them. If they've been grown in the northern hemisphere they may need more "rest" before the show begins - so be patient. They'll brighten winter days in January and February just as well.

2) Water thoroughly when you first pot them. Don't water again until you see buds or leaves emerging from the neck of the bulb. That may be weeks if the bulb is still dormant. That's okay. If the bulb isn't ready to grow, don't force it by watering. That may lead to a rotten bulb. It'll grow when it's good and ready.

3) If you're trying to save the bulb to rebloom for next year, feed heavily throughout the spring and summer. It takes a lot of stored energy to produce those enormous blooms. I read once that for every four leaves the plant produces you should expect one flower spike the following season.

4) I'm loathe to mention this as is seems horticulturally perverse, but for those that have suffered tall amaryllis, they can be given a 4-6% alcohol solution (absolutely no more). This will stunt them and keep them more compact. Flowers will be full size, but the stems will be shorter. You'll need to Google that formula. I won't dispense moonshine concoctions for innocent amaryllis.

If I was a parent or grandparent with young children trying to interest them in the natural world an amaryllis race seems a perfectly fun place to start. Gentlemen, ladies, start your plants.