Cold, dreary winter days can lead to a serious case of the winter “blahs”, especially for avid gardeners. There are few better ways to cure the blahs then to have a plant burst into colorful bloom in your home, when the weather outdoors is gloomy. Enter the amaryllis. Its huge blooms are spectacular and come in many colors including bright, cheerful red. In addition to being very colorful, it has the added attraction of being relatively easy to re-bloom and can continue to give pleasure to its caretaker for many years. December is a good month to start amaryllis for mid-winter bloom.

The plant commonly sold as amaryllis actually is misnamed and is a member of the genus Hippeastrum, not Amaryllis. Hippeastrum is native to the tropical Americas whereas the true Amaryllis is native to Africa. Both are members of the Amaryllidaceae family. “Hippeastrum” comes from the Greek word meaning “horseman’s star”; a name most likely selected for this plant because of the resemblance of its flowers to a medieval weapon used by horseman. For simplicity’s sake we will continue to refer to the plant as amaryllis in this article.

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Most of the amaryllis sold today are hybrids developed by the Dutch and selected for their huge, showy flowers and forcing ease. It is not unusual for a vigorous bulb to produce up to six flowers per scape (flower stalk). Since amaryllis is native to the subtropical and tropical Americas, their tender nature forces us to treat them as greenhouse or house plants here in the Midwest. These traits cause amryllis to maintain a small but constant share of the potted plant market, especially around the holidays.

Amaryllis production for the hobbyist is relatively straight-forward. During the fall and early winter, bulbs are readily available from yard and garden stores as well as other retail outlets. Choose healthy bulbs that have their original roots intact. Bulbs with all roots removed to the bulb plate will display inferior performance during their first year of growth, even though they may bloom. Bulbs should be planted in a well-drained, highly organic potting mix that retains adequate moisture. A mixture of sphagnum peat, vermiculite and perlite works well. Maintaining this medium in a slightly acidic state is desirable.

Containers for amaryllis production should be at least two inches wider than the diameter of the bulb. Keep the growing medium uniformly moist but do not allow water to stand for extended periods of time, except for severely root-bound plants. Amaryllis should be fed using a complete, water-soluble fertilizer after flower emergence. Follow recommendations on the label for rates.

The bulb one purchases will already have a primordial scape formed. Exposure to proper temperatures will cause this scape to elongate, mature and flower. Since amaryllis is tropical by nature, plants respond well to warm temperatures (both day and night). A minimum of 70 degrees F. during the day and 60 degrees at night is ideal during the growth cycle of the plants. Temperatures lower than 50 degrees can be injurious and should be avoided. Amaryllis requires, on the average, from six to eight weeks from the beginning of forcing to the production of flowers.

Re-blooming amaryllis is relatively easy, but the plant must be allowed to manufacture and store food in its bulb in preparation for the process. This is accomplished by exposing the plant to light as bright as possible during the growth period that occurs after flowering has ended. Adequate water and fertilizer are essential for maximum food production during this period. Moving the plant out-of-doors after the danger of cool temperatures has passed will facilitate growth and improve subsequent blooming.

In September, the plant should be brought in from outside at which time watering should be discontinued. This will induce dormancy, which should be maintained for several months. During its dormant phase, an amaryllis should be kept on the cool side and should not receive water. The leaves will wither and dry during this phase and may be removed.

The growth cycle (along with blooming) can be repeated by forcing the plant out of dormancy by watering and subjecting it to warm temperatures as described above. Repotting may be necessary if the bulb has outgrown its original container.

Amaryllis bulbs make practical gifts and are readily available at this time of the year. Their huge blooms represent a fitting reward for plant lovers of all ages. Additionally, amaryllis offers an excellent, “hands-on” learning experience for youngsters.