Each Autumn, big, beautiful Amaryllis bulbs show up in stores alongside spring blooming bulbs. And every year I hesitate, full of guilt about the indulgence at a time when I have so many houseplants to shift indoors for the winter. However, once the snow is settled over the garden and the world has lost its colour, that first bloom is greeted like a miracle unfolding. We watch the developing bud with anticipation and when it opens we circle around it with our cameras, taking in every crumb of colour and life while we can. No summer flower receives such hyper-gleeful fanfare.
Most people associate amaryllis with the Holidays, but I don’t care when it blooms just as long as it does. It’s big, bold flowers are a beacon in the depths of winter, and when they come, I look back on my hesitation in the fall and realize how grateful I am for the indulgence.
I’ve been growing Amaryllis bulbs for years, but they’re a plant that I take for granted and one that I know so little about. As with all things bulb-related I turned once again to Dugald Cameron to shed some light on this seasonal plant. Dugald is the owner of Gardenimport, a Toronto-based business that specializes in offering unique bulbs, perennials, and seed that are hard to find in Canada. You may remember him from an interview I published here in the spring on growing bulbs in containers. Gardenimport has since become a sponsor of this site and I’m pleased to be working with a company that I’ve been buying from for years and a fellow gardener whom I respect. Dugald is also the cofounder of The Greater Toronto Bulb Society and the person who knows more about bulbs than anyone I know.
Growing Amaryllis with Dugald Cameron of Gardenimport
Along with the large, Dutch cultivars that we are used to (these are the sort with the very big, apple-sized bulbs), Gardenimport carries smaller sized South African hybrids that I had never even heard of until I first noticed them in the store’s Fall 2010 catalogue. I first fell in love with a green variety called ‘Green Dragon’ and went on to grow a few more. When it comes to Amaryllis we are conditioned to think that bigger is better, but I have come to prefer these diminutive types and find they are better suited to apartments and small spaces where you may have some trouble finding a place to cram in one of the really big varieties. I also prefer their short stems, which are not tall and floppy and in need of support like the larger types.
Q: Can you tell me a little about the smaller South African hybrids? I’ve got to admit that I’m a little confused by the Amaryllis genera and the origin of the cultivars we grow here in North America. Are these Hippeastrum hybrids or are they hybrids of the South African Amaryllis belladonna?
Dugald: Although Amaryllis belladonna is from South Africa, it isn’t related to the South African grown Amaryllis we offer which are actually hybrids of Hippeastrum, a central and South American native. The breeding work in the smaller South African grown varieties is from crosses among the various Hippeastrum species. Their charm is not only their smaller size, but by potting several together you get a show of many small flowers all together. Besides, it’s always fun to grow something different.
Amaryllis want to bloom in the spring. Fortunately for us, springtime in South Africa is around Christmas here, so for that reason the South African bulbs (aka Southern Hemisphere bulbs) are more reliable about flowering when we want them during the Holidays. The Dutch go through clever techniques to make theirs bloom near Christmas, the peak time for sales. We keep them from flowering early by storing them at 5-8 degrees C and 80% humidity; however, they are unpredictable.
Note: African amaryllis come in different flower sizes that are indicated by musical names (from largest to smallest): Symphony, Sonata, and Sonatini. The smallest look great when grown 3 bulbs to a pot.
Q: Can you recommend a few favorite varieties, particularly a few compact and easy-to-grow types for those of us who live in apartments and small spaces?
Dugald: Both Dutch and African are worth growing but I do agree that the little ones are really fun.
As a lover of bulbs, I hate the question of favourites. It’s is kind of asking a parent what their favourite child is. Each variety is unique, preferences depend on ones taste. Nevertheless, I do have some I’m particularly keen on. ‘Trentino‘ is perhaps the top performer of the small amaryllis we offer. Easy to rebloom and a lot of flower per bulb. The real appeal of these smaller ones is in planting several to a pot which gives you a blooming bouquet instead of the gobsmacking huge display of the larger bloomers like ‘Gold Medal‘ which is an amazing performer of the big flowered Africans.
We also offer some of the latest Dutch varieties because of their different colours and flower forms. ‘Evergreen‘ and ‘Rio Negro‘ are great examples of some of the extraordinary flower forms coming from Holland.
[Gayla Aside: I have grown 'Evergreen' in the past and it is indeed a good choice if you favour boldly green flowers. Dugald sent me a 'Rio Negro' bulb so I will be updating on it later in the season. I love the candy-cane-like stripes complimented by shades of green. He also sent me 'Zombie' (depicted above), a double-form African type that I had to try because, ZOMBIE, as well as a smaller, Sonatini type called 'Graffiti.' I'm not going to lie: a certain percentage of my plant choices are made, at least in part, because of the name. However, I do love their graceful, butterfly-like petals.]
Growing Amaryllis Bulbs: Liquid or Soil?
Q: Through my friend Margaret Roach I have learned of gardeners either growing their amaryllis bulbs in a dilute alcohol solution or adding a slightly stronger solution to soil-grown plants to help keep them standing upright. Apparently this also works for paperwhites. Have you tried this? What is your opinion on the practice?
Dugald: I’m not aware of using an alcohol solution with Amaryllis. If a bulb doesn’t grow straight or grows too tall it’s usually due to too little light (daily turning of the pots 1/4 turn will minimize this), too cold (they like it warm – 25 degrees C), or simply an inferior bulb.
However I did learn at a lecture by a professor from Cornell at the 2006 PPA in Montreal that an alcohol solution would indeed keep Paperwhite Narcissus shorter without affecting the flowering. I’ve included the recipe in our catalogue since then under the title “Drinking Stunts Growth”. I’ve updated our Paperwhite Narcissus ‘White Giant’ to include a link to this recipe.
Dugald’s Paperwhite Brew
To make a 4-6% solution, add 1 part rubbing alcohol to 7 parts water.
Q: On the topic of growing in liquid, do you prefer growing amaryllis in soil as opposed to water? If yes, can you explain why?
Dugald: I’ve never grown Amaryllis in water but I do know that it certainly isn’t the way to get the best flowers (the International Bulb Society doesn’t recommend it) and bulbs grown this way can’t be flowered again, but must be thrown out.
Coaxing Amaryllis to Bloom Again
Q: Most of us who have had experience growing Amaryllis can usually get it to bloom once — it’s the reblooming that can be challenging. Do you have any special tips for keeping a bulb happy and reblooming over the long term?
Dugald: Cut off the spent flower stalks but keep the foliage and keep your plant growing in a sunny spot until the risks of outdoor frosts are gone and it’s warming up. Move your pot outdoors to a shady location for a few weeks to acclimatize to the different light and temperatures after which you can move it to a bright shade. Feed it with a fertilizer with a higher middle number. The ideal being something like 18-20-16, but anything close to this should be fine.
Stop watering and feeding in late August, bring your pot indoors, cut off all the foliage and place your pot in a dark spot. Laying the pot sideways seems to help (a tip from a customer).
Q: What are the chances of reblooming a bulb if you do not have a place to put it outside for the summer months?
Dugald: Reblooming is a simple process provided you can give your amaryllis what it needs. Light levels indoors may not be sufficient for it to form the next season’s flower but you don’t know until you try. Or you could make friends with a neighbour who has some outdoor space.
Q: Say you have a “friend” who forgot to put their amaryllis into its dormancy period in September, as one should, and it is now November, two months late. Can that “friend” go through all of the same steps (discontinue watering and placing in a cool, dark spot) or is there something else that they can do to prompt the bulb to flower this year? Or are they better off waiting until next September?
Dugald: Your friend probably may not see flower but it may be worth a try. Or they could just keep it growing and try again next year.
- Never let the bulb freeze.
- If you are not ready to pot when your bulb arrives, as long as no bud is showing you can keep the bulb in the crisper of your refrigerator.
- Plant in a tight-fitting pot (about 1″ space between the bulb and pot) with the “shoulder” of the bulb above the soil, using a rich but well-drained commercial potting mix, free of tree bark or fresh manure. Water once, then not again for a week.
To help get you started, I’ve purchased a $25 gift certificate from Gardenimport to give away to one randomly selected winner. To toss your name into the hat, comment below, answering the following question:
What is your favourite amaryllis colour?
As always you can also enter with the words “Count me in.” I’ll select one name at random at midnight EST on Thursday, December 5, 2013. Canadian and Continental US residents only this time around, thanks.