By Melinda Heigel, Extension Master GardenerSM Volunteer of Durham County
This time of year, amaryllis (Hippeastrum spp.) bulbs are everywhere! And while perhaps not as ubiquitous as the poinsettia, amaryllis gets a lot of attention during the holiday season. Watching their bright magnificent, often-giant flowers unfold is a wondrous sight during the shortest days of the year. Producers and nurseries usually sell these bulbs as a houseplant to bloom indoors beginning in November. There are more than 90 species of this plant and literally hundreds of cultivars, so the possibilities for color, petal characteristics and configurations seem endless. However, most of the bulbs sold commercially today are hybrids of six different species: H. vittatum, H. leopoldii, H. pardinum, H. reginae, H. puniceum, and H. aulicum.
Before we continue, let’s do a little housekeeping in the botany department. The Hippeastrum spp. we see this time of year in bulb or emerging-bulb forms is most commonly referred to as an “amaryllis,” and that’s what I’ll call them in this piece. However, Hippeastrum and Amaryllis are two distinct plants. And while they are in the same family (Amaryllidaceae) and look quite similar, these two plants have differences in bloom times and geographic areas of origin.
Generally, amaryllis is an easy bulb to grow indoors. Some slightly damp soil, light, consistent 70-degree temps, and Viola!–a showy vibrant flower. I am afraid that much like their elegant, tall-stemmed houseplant counterpart, the orchid (Orchidaceae family), people tend to pitch their amaryllis once it has bloomed. Amaryllis is a perennial, and by following some easy care instructions, you can prepare your bulb to bloom again. Recycling at its most beautiful.1
Once your holiday amaryllis has bloomed, set your bulb up for future success by continuing to actively support its continued growth. Just like you would with any perennial, remove the flowers as they begin to die and cut off the stem just above the bulb.2 This will help prevent the plant from going into “reproduction mode” through seed formation. What you’ll be left with is the bright-green strap-like leaves of the plant. Place the plant in a bright-light location indoors; a south-facing window is a good spot. Remember that by allowing the leaves to photosynthesize, the plant will direct all the energy necessary into the bulb to promote future blooming. Take care to keep the soil slightly moist (too much water can lead to a rotting bulb or disease) and make sure that you are applying a balanced houseplant fertilizer (such as a 10-10-10) regularly. Follow the fertilizer label instructions, but a light application every 3-4 weeks is a general guideline.
You can continue to care for your amaryllis indoors if you choose, but after the threat of frost has passed in your area, you can also move the potted plant outside during warmer weather. Temperatures under 35 degrees harm amaryllis. Ultimately, this plant prefers full sun, but exercise caution when moving the potted plant outside initially. Just like seedlings, take time to acclimate the plant to outside conditions by exposing it to shade, then dappled sun for longer and longer durations, introducing it to full-sun conditions gradually over the course of one to two weeks. While the amaryllis likes full sun (6 hours+), in hot climates like ours, it might be best to place it in a location where it could benefit from a little late-afternoon shade. Continue to keep it moist but don’t overwater. Make sure you move your potted plant back to a sunny indoor location when the threat of frost reoccurs in the later in fall. The plant can stay in the same pot for several seasons. According to the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, the roots of the amaryllis bulb prefer to be a bit pot-bound.3
Planting the Bulb in the Garden
Amaryllis bulbs can also be transplanted into a garden after the last threat of frost. They make good specimens for beds or borders and can be impressive cut flowers. If your goal is to eventually plant the bulb outside in the spring, follow the same gradual method for acclimatization mentioned above prior to in-ground planting. Amaryllis bulbs are generally hardy through Zone 7b and 8a as long as they are thoroughly mulched throughout the fall and winter. Choosing a well-drained area rich in organic matter is a must; wet areas typically mean bulb and root rot and pathogens like “red blotch” (caused by the Stagonospora curtissi fungus). Plant in full to part sun. Unlike tulips and narcissus bulbs which are planted at greater depths, plant the amaryllis bulbs with half of the neck exposed above the soil line and then only cover the top sparingly with soil. Space plants anywhere between 6 to 12 inches apart. With amaryllis planted in your landscape, wait until mid-spring when you see new growth emerge before fertilizing. Then, choose a fertilizer low in nitrogen or one especially formulated for bulbs. Two additional applications are recommended: one after a plant stalk is 6 inches tall and again after bloom time once you remove all fading flowers and the spent stem. Just in the potted-plant scenario above, the leaves are left to photosynthesize and reenergize the bulb for following seasons.
Re-flowering for the Holiday Season
So you have been diligent in caring for your potted amaryllis bulb all year long. If you want to experience the show-stopping flowers again for the next holiday season, there are several things you need to do. First, remember to bring your potted amaryllis indoors when the threat of frost is imminent. While first frost dates may be more unpredictable these days, our Durham, NC watch date is October 15. All bulbs need to undergo a dormancy phase of approximately 8-10 weeks before they can re-bloom again. Place your potted amaryllis bulb in a cool, dark location (temps in the 45-55-degree range). During this resting stage, stop watering and fertilizing the plant. The leaves will yellow and wither; once this has occurred, remove them. Keep a close check on your pot. When you see the emergence of the green flower bud, move the plant to a sunny indoor location with a temperature of about 70 degrees and resume watering. Do not fertilize a bulb that has no leaves. This can lead to death of the bulb’s roots. Wait to resume any fertilization methods until the plant is growing in earnest.
If you are not seeing any new growth emerge after 10 weeks in the colder and darker conditions, you can encourage new growth by then watering the soil once thoroughly and moving the plant to a warm, sunny indoor location. Only when signs of new growth begin should you resume regular watering. To encourage a straight flower stalk, rotate the potted amaryllis around periodically as it emerges to eliminate positive phototropism (when a plant directs its growth in one direction toward available sunlight).
Amaryllis are easy-care plants. By providing them a little extra attention throughout the year, you can experience these perennials as they should be enjoyed–over and over again!
1–Many nurseries and garden centers are now offering free-standing waxed amaryllis bulbs. Producers remove the roots of the bulb, insert a wire at the bulb’s base for balance, and encase the bulb in a colorful wax. No pots or growing media exist in this modern application. I mention this trendy amaryllis presentation to say that repotting and re-flowering may be possible with this type of bulb but perhaps more challenging. Some experts advise that you can attempt to remove the wax and wire and repot the bulb, but inspect the bulb carefully after your deconstruction. Any sign of damage to the bulb could be detrimental to its overall health and ability to re-flower. However the University of Delaware Master Gardener program has a step by step guide to work with waxed amaryllis bulbs. https://www.udel.edu/academics/colleges/canr/news/2022/january/prep-your-waxed-amaryllis-to-rebloom-next-year/
2 –Some Cooperative Extension experts recommend removing the flowers but leaving the tall plant stalk until it browns and withers prior to cutting it off above the bulb. They contend the green stalk can also aid in the plant’s photosynthesis. https://extension.unh.edu/blog/2019/01/can-i-get-my-amaryllis-bloom-again
Resources and Additional Information
North Carolina State University’s Plant Toolbox offers a good overview of the both the Hippeastrum spp. and the Amaryllis spp. Compare and contrast the two plants here — https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/hippeastrum/; https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/amaryllis/.
To understand the plant parts of the Hippeastrum spp., North Carolina State and Longwood Gardens have partnered in producing the following short video.
Illinois Cooperative Extension’s site provides and excellent overview of amaryllis care and re-blooming strategies. https://extension.illinois.edu/blogs/good-growing/2021-12-03-how-take-care-amaryllis-and-get-them-rebloom
For a short primer on forcing amaryllis bulbs, see Clemson University’s Home and Information Garden Center’s fact sheet. https://hgic.clemson.edu/forcing-amaryllis/
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Many thanks to our readers in 2022!
We’ll be taking next week off and will be back in January ready to keep the garden goodness flowing in 2023.