Amaryllis offers something rare in the world of gardening -- almost instant gratification. Few flowers come ready to perform the way these bulbs do their first year, offering blooms throughout the holidays.
The bulbs we call amaryllis are in the genus Hippeastrum, originally from South America. Hippeastrum hybrids, now grown commercially in South Africa and the Netherlands, come in an increasing range of colors and sizes, from 8 - inch flowers to 4 - inch miniatures like 'Baby Star'. Typically, the more familiar Dutch bulbs take 6 to 10 weeks to bloom, bearing larger flowers on taller stems, while the shorter African bulbs, known as Christmas-flowering amaryllis, bloom in about 4 to 6 weeks.
Martha's favorites range from miniature 'Scarlet Baby' to the more traditional red-flowered 'Pamela' to 'Spotty,' which bears greenish blooms with wine-colored stripes. Martha treats each pot as if it were a small garden, with annual ryegrass seeds sown at the base for a tiny lawn or little violets planted around the bulbs; she often uses moss to decorate the soil surface. One amaryllis in a single pot can look a bit lonely, she says, but when staged in groupings or massed in one pot, they are dramatic. To ensure flowers for more than a month, she staggers plantings. During the holidays, Martha sometimes uses cut amaryllis as an accent in a floral centerpiece.
Good-quality bulbs will bloom the first season with very little difficulty, but there are a few steps to follow for the best flower show, starting with buying the largest bulb available -- it will pay off in multiple blooms. While amaryllis can be grown outdoors in Zones 9 to 10, most are forced indoors for blooms from early winter to early spring.
1. Select a container that has drainage holes and is about 2 inches wider than the diameter of the bulb (for example, use a 6-inch-wide pot for a 4-inch bulb).
2. Use any fast-draining soil medium with plenty of sand to offer a weighty stiff support; or try a blend of peat, coarse sand, vermiculite, and charcoal in a ratio of 3:3:2:1.
3. Place a terra-cotta shard over the drainage holes, and fill the pot partway so the bulbs will rest at the correct depth. Do not bury the bulb deeper than its shoulders; at least one-third of the bulb should remain above the soil line. Continue filling, tamping the soil all the way around.
4. Saturate the soil with tepid water, then place the pot in a warm bright spot. Unless the soil becomes very dry, do not water again until signs of life begin or until 3 weeks have passed.
Dutch hybrid amaryllis will bloom in 6 to 10 weeks, the Christmas-flowering (African) types usually bloom in 4 to 6 weeks. The bulbs make flowers first -- as many as three successive stemfuls -- and eventually foliage will sprout. To prolong bloom time, move the plants to a cooler spot away from direct sun as soon as flowers begin opening.
Once the flowers fade, cut them just above the base, but encourage leaves all spring and summer with bright light, regular watering, and weekly feeding.
Miniature or small-flowered amaryllis are among the most graceful types. Like large-flowered amaryllis, they are available in many colors.
'Amoretta,' a Dutch hybrid, is a miniature-flowered version of the popular large-flowered pink-and-white 'Apple Blossom.'
'Baby Star' produces small red-and-white striped flowers on 12- to 14-inch-tall stems about 2 months after planting.
'Green Goddess' has well-proportioned yellow flowers tinged with green on 12- to 14-inch-tall stems.
'Milady' bears clear pink flowers on foot-tall stems about 4 to 6 weeks after it is planted.
'Pamela' has rosy-red flowers with cheerful yellow stamens on 12- to 14-inch-tall stems.
'Scarlet Baby' is a well-proportioned miniature variety with brilliant red flowers that have yellow at the throat.
'Spotty,' a beautiful, vigorous amaryllis, bears unusual greenish flowers with wine-colored stripes about 8 weeks after planting.
'Springtime,' which blooms about 6 weeks after planting, bears delicate white flowers shaded soft rose pink on 12- to 16-inch stems.
'Wedding Dance,' a Christmas-flowering variety, sends up 12- to 16-inch stems with glistening star-shaped white flowers.
Renowned for their striking colorful blooms atop tall flower stalks, large-flowered amaryllis hybrids bring color and drama to any place. Martha often clips a few flowers to add an unusual note to holiday arrangements and centerpieces.
'Apple Blossom,' a large-flowered version of 'Amoretta,' is popular for its single, trumpetlike flowers that are white flushed with pink.
'Bolero,' which blooms about 10 weeks after planting, bears rich vivid-pink flowers on stems up to 2 feet tall.
'Carnival' bears 18- to 24-inch-tall flower stalks topped by striped red-and-white flowers less than 6 weeks after planting.
'Desert Dawn,' a Christmas-flowering variety, has salmon-pink or dark apricot-pink flowers on 14- to 16-inch-tall stems.
'Double Record,' a Dutch hybrid, has showy double flowers that are white with red shading atop 2-foot-tall flower stalks.
'Jewel' produces large white flowers with yellow throats and has a light, sweet fragrance.
'Lady Jane,' a double-flowered Dutch hybrid, grows 14 to 24 inches high and produces apricot-rose blooms with white stripes.
'Lemon and Lime,' a Dutch hybrid and one of Martha’s favorites, produces unusual white flowers that blend to pale yellow with green at the throat atop 18- to 24-inch stems.
'Minerva,' bearing red flowers with a wide white stripe emanating from the throat, is a Dutch hybrid that grows to about 18 inches.
'Orange Sovereign,' a stunningly large-flowered variety, requires about 10 weeks to bloom but produces up to 5 deep orange-red blooms per tall stem.
'Rainbow,' a picotee variety with a delicate red edge around its white petals, blooms about 10 to 12 weeks after planting, producing 18-inch stems.
'Red Lion' produces classic large, red trumpetlike red flowers on 18- to 24-inch-tall stems.
'Red Peacock' bears large, brilliant-red double trumpetlike flowers on 18- to 24-inch-tall stems.
'Red Sensation,'with its large deep-red trumpetlike flowers and bright-yellow stamens, is a classic tall-stemmed amaryllis.