December 1, 2013
Say “Christmas flower” and most of us think poinsettia, yet in much of the world amaryllis come to mind. Beginning in 1979 when the Des Moines Botanical Center first opened, poinsettias en masse colored the conservatory. This practice continued until last November when Kelly Norris took up his work as horticulture manager of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden; soon he placed a large urn filled chockablock with amaryllis as the jewel in the crown of the conservatory.
This year the Holiday Exhibition (November 22-January 5) features many such displays of amaryllis in cultivars having single or double flowers, including the Dutch hybrid giants, the smaller miniatures and the recently introduced Cybister hybrids with tapering, twisted petals that could suggest an orchid.
The flowers we call amaryllis are in fact members of the genus Hippeastrum (hippy-AST-rum), which sounds like grist for a Jay Leno joke. In fact the name has nothing to do with obesity but is from the Greek, meaning “knight's star.” The related trueAmaryllis belladonnais native to the Western Cape of South Africa while the hippeastrums are endemic to tropical and subtropical regions of the Caribbean, Mexico and South America.
The amaryllis you'll marvel over at the Holiday Exhibition got their start in cultivation when Dutch traders brought them to the Netherlands in 1767. Following World War II, two young Dutchmen took their stock of amaryllis to South Africa and set up business as Hadeco. Today, a preponderance of the world's supply of these bulbs originates with this firm, a leader in the creation of new cultivars.
While amaryllis bulbs are often sold pre-planted in plastic pots, unglazed clay with a drainage hole is preferable, to provide ballast to anchor the top-heavy plants. Set one bulb in a 6- to 8-inch pot, three in a 12-inch. Using all-purpose potting soil, add enough to fill the pot two-thirds full. Position the bulb and spread out the roots; add more soil, making sure to leave the shoulder and neck of the bulb exposed. If you like, add a decorative mulch such as sandstone pebbles or florist sheet moss. Water well and place to grow in a sunny, warm window. Flowers typically appear in two to six weeks.
No one seems to know why, but once the amaryllis flowers start to open, they last longer when cut and placed in a vase of water. They are now widely sold in the cut-flower market; you may notice them as decorations for television programs such as the “Today Show” and “Ellen.”
After flowering, continue watering, provide as much sun as possible, and begin biweekly applications of fertilizer diluted in water. When the weather outdoors is warm enough for tomatoes, set amaryllis pots outdoors where they'll receive a half day or more of direct sun. Continue watering and fertilizing, ideally with a product labeled for tomatoes, until Labor Day. Before night temperatures drop below 50 degrees F., bring the amaryllis indoors to a frost-free place, probably your basement, and stop watering. Do not remove the green leaves; wait until they dry up.
Around New Year's remove all the dead leaves, bring the pot to that warm, sunny window and begin watering. Watch for flower buds, which will usually appear in a few weeks. Even though we buy amaryllis bulbs in the fall, expecting blooms for the holidays, in succeeding years they are more likely to bloom later, midwinter or around Valentine's Day.