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An amaryllis isn’t just for Christmas

Someone is bound to give you one for Christmas. It flowers once – usually a spectacular trumpeting of large-scale colour – and then what do you do with it?   Do your ‘amaryllis’ bulbs – which should really be called hippeastrums because a true amaryllis is the outdoor-flowering belladonna lily – refuse ever to sing for you a second time?   If so, it’s a shame  because if you’re nice to them they will bloom year after year.   I have several currently in bud for the fourth or fifth time.  Here’s how.

Once the flower has withered, cut the stem off at the base with a sharp knife. Put the pot on a warm sunny window sill and feed it like mad with Baby Bio or some other all-purpose plant food from now until October.  Remember school biology lessons and photosynthesis?  What you want to encourage is a lot of nice healthy green leaves full of chlorophyll.  Then the energetic sunlight can work with the carbon dioxide in the air and all that water you’re going to give the bulb several times per week to form the sugars which ‘feed’ the bulb.

In October slice all the foliage off cleanly and horizontally at the neck of the bulb.  Then put bulb and pot away in a cool, dark dry place and forget about it for two months. The cellar of my Edwardian town house is ideal for this.  A corner of the garage, shed or cupboard in an unheated spare bedroom would probably do just as well.

Exhume them just before Christmas, lifting the dry bulbs and their root systems carefully out of their pots.  Shake off as much of the old soil as you can without disturbing the roots too much. Then put the bulbs in a shallow bowl of tepid water for an hour or two to soak the roots before re-potting.

Use roomy pots – 8 or 9 inch are best –  and top quality bulb fibre.  Put some pebbles or broken  crocks in the bottom of each pot.  This helps drainage and it makes the pots heavier and more stable as the plant grows.  Fill the pots about two thirds with fibre.  Ease the bulb into the centre of the pot and pack plenty more fibre around it, leaving about half an inch of the neck of the bulb  exposed above soil level.

Keep the pots moist in a warm – not less than 60 degrees F –  room and in the light.

Within a few weeks you should have a flower bud, or two or three if you’re lucky.  This is the exciting will-it-or-won’t-it time which involves, if you’re like me, frequent close examination to see if I can see signs of life and much cheering come the happy day I spot the  characteristic, slightly cloven, tip of an emerging bud.  Amaryllis bulbs which have already flowered in previous years often show leaves before the buds appear.  I rather like that because I think the flower stem actually looks more attractive surrounded by leaves than starkly solitary as it usually is in a first-year amaryllis.

Last year only one (out of seven) of my ‘old’ amaryllis bulbs has failed me.  My usual practice then is to give the miscreant just one more chance.  I  treated it like the others during te summer – but if it doesn’t perform next spring I shall dump it.  Sometimes they miss a single year but then go on to flower  several more times.

A word about acquiring amaryllis bulbs in the first place.  As with any other bulb the bigger the better, and the best hippestratums certainly come from specialist growers rather than from supermarkets and garden centres.  Shop about for Rilona – a beautiful salmon pink variety and Mont Blanc which is an exquisite pure white.  A good bulb weigh more than half a pound when you buy it and routinely puts up several flower stems.  Both of these have flowered splendidly and serially for me.

The familiar supermarket amaryllis – usually Apple Blossom or Red Lion –  tends to be a relatively slight bulb and is invariably packed with a very small pot and a diminutive bag of dusty, poor quality fibre.  It is, I’m certain, presented like that only because it makes a handy easy-to-wrap gift.  It is not because hippeastrums ‘like’ their roots to be constricted, contrary to what it might say on the box.  Even if you can persuade it to thrive in a small pot, the grown amaryllis will be unstable and liable to tip – which it can’t do if you anchor  it in a larger pot.

If you are given one of these ‘gift pack’ hippeastrums, the best thing to do with it is to jettison the provided pot and the growing medium.  Instead plant the bulb in a decent sized pot with plenty of good bulb fibre.  My Angelique  amaryllis, for example, looked very sorry for itself when I took it out of the box in which it was given me a couple of  Christmases ago. It was quite a small bulb, very shrivelled and had already dryly produced a sad, white, unpromising bent shoot.  It reminded me of a neglected animal in need of a good home but I feared it might be beyond saving.    Once , however, planted in a large pot, it soon  sported  two sturdy flower stems and an encouraging growth of green leaves. It has flowered annually since.


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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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