Amaryllis for the Christmas Season

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I love looking at the plant sections in the grocery stores these days. The horticultural offerings are getting more and more interesting, and cheaper! Without a doubt, the rainbow of Amaryllis has caught your eye. They come in so many beautiful shades of red and pink, and their showy flowers bring a different element to your holiday decorations. The large bell-shaped or lily-like flowers of the amaryllis (technically a Hippeastrum species) and its hybrids make excellent garden and potted plants and are often given as gifts during the holiday season. Let’s look at what it takes to keep these perennials coming back as part of your winter holiday season.

Most of the bulbs sold are either Dutch- or South African-grown hybrids that will flower without special treatment when first purchased. When grown indoors the bulbs will bloom in about eight weeks from when you pot them up at home.

The planting and care is the same for amaryllis bulbs, whether you are repotting an old bulb that you’ve saved or a new one. However, with the bulbs that you have saved, cut off the old dried leaves before replanting the bulb. Plant the bulb in a container that is one to two inches larger in diameter than the base of the bulb. Potted bulbs thrive under conditions in which they are slightly root-bound. Containers can be either clay or plastic, and they must have drainage holes in the bottom.

Plant amaryllis with about 1/3 to 1/2 of the bulb above the potting media surface. This keeps the bulb’s “nose” dry, which helps reduce red blotch infection, a fungal disease. Make sure your potting media is well-drained, with a pH between 6.0 and 6.5. A mixture containing equal parts peat and perlite works well. Immediately after planting, thoroughly water the bulb and media. Keep the media slightly moist until the bulb flowers, then water your plant when the soil surface feels dry to the touch. Once per week should do the trick.

Amaryllis grow best in a well-lit area that receives at least four hours of direct sunlight each day. A southern window exposure is best, but an eastern- or western-facing window are the next best places.

This plant prefers warm temperatures (70 to 75°F) until the roots form and the leaves and flower stalk begin to grow. Once the plant flowers, cooler temperatures (65°F) will prolong the life of the flower, and save on your electric bill!

Skip the fertilizing if your bulb hasn’t developed leaves yet. Fertilizing in the bulb-only stage can kill the roots. After it begins to grow leaves, fertilization is needed twice a month using a soluble fertilizer recommended for potted plants at full strength and frequency. Read and follow the label for the best success.

After they finish blooming the plant will want to set seed. Remove the blossoms as soon as they fade to prevent this. You can just cut the stem off just above the bulb. This helps save energy for future flower production.

Place the plant in a sunny window. During the next several months, leaf growth is happening and should be encouraged for future bulb development. Keep the media slightly moist and fertilize with a balanced houseplant fertilizer at regular intervals. You can continue to grow your amaryllis indoors all year, or outdoors as soon as the danger of frost has passed in the spring.

You can induce dormancy after a few months of leaf growth, in order to time the flowers with the winter holiday season again. If you want the bulb to go dormant, stop watering it. The leaves will shrivel up, but the bulb will be fine. Place it in a paper bag and label it with the date. Place it in the vegetable drawer of your refrigerator for about three months or at least two months before you want it to flower again.

And repeat!

Updated from Minda Daughtry’s article “Amaryllis for Christmas” from 2017.

Amanda Wilkins is the Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.