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Standouts of the Season: Amaryllis

Martha Stewart Living, December 2008

Even those of us who lack halos and wings can work holiday miracles if we put our faith in amaryllis. 

This tropical bulb is a perpetual revelation, and not just because the South America native (Hippeastrum to botanists) thrives indoors with minimal care, flaunts spectacular long-lasting winter flowers, and dependably reblooms. 

Santa-red poinsettias still rule the aisles of supermarkets, accounting for more than three-quarters of Yuletide houseplant sales in the United States. But global Hippeastrum production has more than doubled during the past decade, boosting availability and affordability. 

The boom has also raised amaryllis's aesthetic profile. Growers are hybridizing varieties with extraordinary colors, shapes, and markings. As a potted bulb and a source for cut flowers, the amaryllis is showing a stylish versatility that leaves the poinsettia looking like a one-reindeer sleigh. People who used to display a solitary bulb on festive occasions to brighten a room now envision megawatt, full-season, multi-amaryllis extravaganzas all through the house. 

Thanks to the expansion by Dutch bulb growers in South Africa and South America, such fantasies are no longer pipe dreams.

Projects

Amaryllis Napkin Rings
Crepe-Paper Amaryllis
Potted Amaryllis Gift Wrap
Faux-Amaryllis Wreath

Amaryllis inspiration sparkles on the pages of specialty-nursery catalogs and websites (the trustiest sources for rare and unusual varieties). Possibilities include miniature blossoms clustered like dainty constellations; statuesque "singles" and ruffled "doubles" (with twice the petals); and flowers with bicolored and multicolor designs that are as exquisitely striped, dotted, or moired as couture silks.

Dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists can rejoice that the giant scarlet Dutch amaryllis hybrids handed down for generations have been joined by a merry band in every hue of red. More adventurous decorators will find a rich palette that ranges from snowy white to ivory, rose to salmon, mahogany to bronze, flax to apricot, chartreuse to jade. 

Lovers of exotica should warm to a current trend in Hippeas-trum breeding: the quest for cultivars that evoke the silhouettes and coloration of lost or endangered jungle ancestors. Experiments with two species in particular, spidery H. cybister and butterfly-like H. papilio, have yielded prodigies of unearthly beauty.

The English clockmaker who created the first Hippeastrum hybrid, in 1799, would marvel at the timing of todays South African hybrids. They bloom only four to six weeks after emerging from fall dormancyseveral weeks earlier than the venerable Dutch strains, making them a godsend to hosts whose floral deadline can't extend past December 25.

Theres good news, too, for all who rely on florists for instant gratification (and anyone who wants to maintain the bloom from a broken stalk). A recent study found that, whereas the flowers on potted amaryllis last a maximum of 10 days, cut amaryllis stay vase-worthy for as long as two weeks. Indoor gardeners also hail the introduction of vigorous compact bulbs, ideally suited to small windowsills as well as clustered container plantings.

Another intriguing development is the accessibility of fragrant flowers, once virtually unknown in the retail trade. Easy alternatives to most other bulbs with scented winter blooms, these Hippeastrum varieties need no precooling in a refrigerator. The main attraction, of course, is their sweet perfume -- a subtle contrast to the olfactory wallop of paperwhites. Jo-Anne van den Berg-Ohms, president of bulb importer John Scheepers, says this about the Trumpets, a seductive new group: "Their scent reminds me of raspberries in the sunlight. A small miracle, perhaps, but simply divine on a bleak midwinter day.


How to Condition Cut Amaryllis

The hollow stems must stay full of water. With proper care, flowers last up to two weeks.

1. Partially fill a clean vase or other container with water (amaryllis stay fresh longer in shallow water). Add 1 pack of cut-flower food.

2. Using a sharp knife, cut stem at a 45-degree angle. Immediately turn flower upside down and pour fresh water into stem.

3. Plug cut opening with a cotton ball, and transfer amaryllis to vase. (If you don't have cotton, keep the stem end covered with your fingertip until stem end is submerged.)

4. Repeat steps 1 through 3 every 2 to 3 days.

5. Remove spent blooms as new flowers open.

How to Plant and Care for Amaryllis

For success the first season, buy top-quality bulbs, which should be firm and dry.

1. Choose a container that has a drainage hole and is about 2 inches wider than the diameter of 1 amaryllis bulb. For groups of 2 or more bulbs, select a wider pot that provides an equally snug fit.

2. Use a fast-draining soil medium with enough sand to provide a weighty anchor for the tall full-grown plant. Or try a soilless mix of peat, coarse sand, vermiculite, and charcoal in a ratio of 3:3:2:1.

3. Place a pottery shard over drainage hole, and fill container with potting mix up to bulb "shoulders" (the point where a bulb tapers toward its top, or "nose"). At least 1/3 of each bulb should project above the mix. Arrange multiple bulbs with shoulders touching.

4. Water thoroughly, and set pot in a warm (65 to 70 degrees), bright place. Water as needed to keep soil barely moist, until new growth emerges. Then water regularly. Fertilize monthly with liquid houseplant food, or apply a balanced time-release fertilizer according to label directions.

Note: To prolong bloom time, move pot to a cooler (about 60 degrees) area, out of direct sunlight, as soon as flowers start to open.

How to Encourage Rebloom

Amaryllis bulbs have been known to flower annually for up to 40 years.

1. After all flowers have faded, cut stems above the bulb nose, leaving foliage in place.

2. Keep plant in bright light, and water regularly; mix should be moist, not soggy.

3. In summer, continue to water and fertilize (as in step 4 of "How to Plant and Care for Amaryllis"). The pot may be set in a sunny spot outdoors.

4. In September, stop watering and fertilizing; if plant has been outdoors, bring it back inside. Set the pot in a cool, dry place for 8 to 10 weeks. A small amount of fresh mix may be added to pot, just below bulb-shoulder level; or bulb may be repotted as if new.

5. To start the next growth cycle, move pot to a warm place, water, and follow care instructions for a freshly planted bulb (see step 4 of "How to Plant"). Dutch hybrid amaryllis will rebloom in 8 to 12 weeks; African hybrids will rebloom in 4 to 6 weeks.


Glossary (see referenced image)

This sampling of horticultural types, colors, and sizes only hints at thephenomenal range of choices presented by hybrids of the genus Hippeastrum, commonly known as amaryllis.

1. 'Green Goddess'
Dutch miniature; white with chartreuse throat. 

2. 'Rapido'
Dutch miniature; solid red interior. 

3. 'Faro'
Dutch single; salmon with white starburst; green eye. 

4. 'Candy Floss'
South African single; shades of pink. 

5. 'Bolero'
Dutch single; deep rose. 

6. 'La Paz'
Cybister; coral and greenish white. 

7. 'Trentino'
South African miniature; creamy white with pale-pink margin; bright-green throat. 

8. 'Papilio Improved'
(aka Butterfly); cream, burgundy, and bronze; evergreen leaves. 

9. 'Red Pearl'
South African single; scarlet. 

10. 'Mocca'
Dutch single; tawny petals with pale-green reverse. 

11. 'Red Peacock'
Dutch double; red with random white mid-veins. 

12. 'White Nymph'
Dutch double; pure white; green eye.