Michey Rathbun: Amaryllis: A Winter Wonder

Published: 12-08-2016 2:54 PM

We’re entering that dark cold part of the year, when color drains from the landscape and we yearn for some bright growing things.

A terrific way to enliven the winter months is to pot up some amaryllis bulbs. At first sight, the large, knobby bulbs don’t look very promising. But with proper care and a little patience, their spectacular blooms will surprise and delight you.

Amaryllis originated in the tropical areas of South America; their botanical name is Hippeastrum. There are single bloom and double bloom varieties in every imaginable shade and combination of white, pale green, pink, salmon, orange and red.

Some, like Ambience, have striped flowers; Picotee has blooms that are one color edged with another. Hotlips has brilliant red petals splashed with white. Naranja is a deep orange with a darker throat. There are exotic amaryllis, including Cybister Emerald, Evergreen and La Paz, whose skinny petals give the flowers a delicate, spidery appearance.

Garden stores and nursery catalogs offer an abundant range of possibilities. The hardest thing about amaryllis may be choosing just a few.

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It’s too late to start an amaryllis now that will bloom in time for Christmas. But the need for warm color stretches well beyond the holiday season. I like to stagger them so that the bulbs send out flower shoots at different times.

Amaryllis are a cinch to grow. If you don’t plant the bulb immediately, store it in a cool place, 40-50 degrees. Give the bulb a head start by soaking the roots and base in warm water for a few hours before potting. Then, place the bulb in a pot that’s snug, about an inch in diameter bigger than the bulb at its widest point. Use a potting medium high in organic matter. Garden soil is too dense and will not drain properly. Press the soil lightly but firmly in place around the bulb, leaving about of the bulb sticking out above the soil. Make sure there’s at least an inch of potting soil under the base of the bulb so the roots have room to develop. Water the bulb thoroughly, and then water sparingly until a couple of inches of growth emerges.

Amaryllis enjoy warmth; an ambient temperature of 68-70 is ideal. To encourage the bulb to send up growth, you can set it above a radiator. I am fortunate to have radiant heat in the floor, so I place my pots on the floor in front of a sunny window. I have also placed pots on heating pads.

When growth begins, gradually increase watering. It’s a good idea to rotate the pot every few days so the stem grows straight. Amaryllis generally take between seven and 10 weeks to flower. To prolong the blooming period, keep them out of direct sunlight. Depending on the size of the blooms and the height of the stem, amaryllis may need staking. A pea stake or any other sturdy, skinny stick will do. You can use unobtrusive garden string, but I think a colorful ribbon is nice, if you have any left over from holiday wrappings.

Last year I experimented with keeping my spent bulbs alive through the summer, feeding and watering them to encourage the green growth necessary to replenish the bulb’s flower power. Of the five bulbs I started with, one failed to thrive and ended up in the compost bin. I did my best to remember to feed and water the others, and they kept their bright green leaves till fall, despite my occasional lapses. These bulbs are now repotted and I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll be rewarded with new blooms. I’ll report back in a few months; depending on the results, I hope to give new and improved advice on keeping amaryllis for subsequent seasons of bloom.

Emily Dickinson’s Birthday Open House

As many Dickinson fans know, the poet was a devoted gardener. This year, Dickinson’s 186th birthday, Dec. 10, coincides with the restoration of the Homestead conservatory.

The Emily Dickinson Museum is celebrating these events with an Open House Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. Visitors may tour the Homestead at their leisure and will to be among the first to see the restored conservatory. There will be free, guided 20-minute tours of the Evergreens, the home of Dickinson’s brother Austin, next door to the Homestead. Visitors will be able to hear Dickinson’s poems inspired by her experience with the natural world. They are also invited to decorate a miniature pot with words and images and plant them with seeds from Dickinson’s garden.

Coconut cake made from Dickinson’s own recipe will be served. The public is welcome; no fee or reservation is required.

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at foxglover8@gmail.com.