Mickey Rathbun: Amaryllis brightens indoor landscape

  • Red Amarilis Flower Gilberto_Mesquita—Getty Images/iStockphoto

Friday, November 17, 2017

Now that the last of my outdoor flowers are limp and brown, I’m thinking about some bulbs for winter color indoors. Paperwhites are lovely. Hyacinths are nice too; their spicy-sweet fragrance is heavenly on a blustery winter day when the windows are frosted over.

But my favorite indoor flowering bulb is the amaryllis. Hands down.

The amaryllis starts as a homely, pale green bulb with a frizzle of shriveled roots on the bottom and a crown of tight concentric rings on top. But what promise lies inside. Over a period of weeks, green strappy leaves emerge. Then a fat green bud begins to poke its head out. Once it breaks dormancy, it’s magical. You can practically see it growing. The stalk reaches a height of 10 to 24 inches, depending on the variety. Then the bud swells and breaks apart, revealing closely folded petals that seem to be saying: “It’s about time! Let us out of here!”

The bud gradually opens into a cluster of 2 to 12 trumpet-shaped flowers that last a couple of weeks or so. When they’re done, another bud appears, and the process begins again. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a three-peat.

I confess that every fall I put off ordering new bulbs because there are so many beautiful ones to choose from. Some put out single flowers, others sport double blooms. Some are demure, others are va-va-voom. Some require fewer days to sprout than others. But they are all wonderful in their own way. And every year there are more mind-boggling selections.

I wrote a column last year about keeping spent amaryllis bulbs over the summer and replanting them in the fall for another season of blooming. Since then, several friends have told me that they manage this feat without going to a lot of trouble. Other people are not so successful, even though they water and fertilize carefully throughout the summer. I don’t know why this is. Maybe some people have greener thumbs than the rest of us.

Anyway, if you start with good quality, store-bought bulbs, producing magnificent flowers is easy-peasy. Keep the bulbs in a cool, dry place until you’re ready to pot them up. Bulbs take between 6 and 10 weeks to bloom, so count backward to decide when you want to start them.

Amaryllis like to be in fairly snug pots with drainage holes. Depending on the size of your bulb, a 6 or 8-inch pot should work. Figure on an inch of space all around the bulb at its widest point. Put some broken pottery or stones at the bottom of the pot to facilitate draining. Fill the pot about halfway with potting soil. Don’t use garden soil because it isn’t porous enough to drain properly. Nestle the bulb into the soil and fill in around the edges, leaving the bulb’s “shoulders” bare. That means the top third or so of the bulb should remain above the soil line. This might take a bit of adjustment to get the right depth, but mathematical precision isn’t necessary.

Place the bulbs in a warm place with bright, indirect light. The warmer the place, the sooner the bulbs will break dormancy. Because my house is fairly cool, I sometimes set my pots on a heating pad turned on its lowest setting to speed things along. Water the bulb sparingly until it has two inches of green showing. Then, water more often, keeping the soil moist but not saturated.

When your flowers open, you may need to stake the stalk to keep the plant from tipping under the weight of the blooms. Plants with shorter stalks are less likely to need this. Not to go Martha Stewart on you, but if your flowers emerge around the holidays, you can use gift-wrapping ribbon to secure the stalk to the stake. (If you’re like me, you’ll probably have stray ribbons lying around well into February.)

Rotate your pots every few days so the flower doesn’t lean toward the sun. To keep blooms fresh as long as possible, keep the plant out of direct sunlight.

After the bloom is finished, cut the stalk down to the base of the bulb. Another bud should be out by then. I have read that if you’re planning to keep the bulb over the summer, you should cut the dead flowers off but leave the stalk until it turns brown. This is supposed to maximize the plant’s opportunity to gather nutrients through photosynthesis. I’m not totally convinced it makes a difference, since the plant will have all summer long to bask in the sun and fortify itself for the coming season.

Local garden stores have amaryllis bulbs for sale. Or you can order bulbs online from mail-order nurseries. Unfortunately, bulbs are pricey, $9 or more, depending where you shop. You generally get a discount when you buy in bulk, and potted bulbs make elegant holiday gifts. You’ll be glad you splurged.

Holiday events at Tower Hill’s Garden Shop

Speaking of holiday gifts, take yourself shopping at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston. The Garden Shop offers a carefully selected array of gifts, tools and more from around the world for aspiring and veteran gardeners alike. Seasonal indoor and outdoor plants, gardening tools, supplies and a collection of gardening books provide the inspiration and know-how to make your garden (indoors or out) flourish.

For younger visitors to Tower Hill, the Garden Shop carries a wide selection of nature and gardening toys, books and nature-focused crafts.

The Garden Shop takes pride in supporting independent American artisans and craftspeople who are inspired by the natural world. On Nov. 25, the Garden Shop will hold a special “Small Business Saturday” featuring the work of American artisans and craftspeople. Included in this season’s offerings are some of my favorite goodies: hand-crafted screen print pillows and totes created by award-winning duo Eric Fausnacht and Christopher Kline. Their enchanting work features imagery of animals from Eric’s farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. These are definitely “One for you, one for me” gifts.

On Nov. 26, the Garden Shop will participate in Museum Store Sunday, along with over 400 other cultural institutions. Hours for both shopping events are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Advance tickets are required for evening visits. Admission to the shop is free with admission fee to Tower Hill. Members’ admission is free and they will receive 20 percent off on their purchases.

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