Popular for their festive, oversized flowers, amaryllis bulbs are commonly sold for the Christmas holiday season. Varieties include single flowered, double flowered and miniature’s, ranging in colour from red to salmon, orange, white and pink, with many varieties having stripes or contrasting edges. New hybrids can have flowers up to 22cm across and the double flowers from Japan are particularly beautiful. These large varieties usually produce a single stem with 4 flowers, and very large bulbs may produce 2 stems. Sonatini hybrids are true miniatures with blooms between 6 and 12cm across – this may not sound small, but for Amaryllis flowers it is! These smaller varieties make up for what they lack in stature with their blooming generosity, with a single bulb producing up to 3 flower spikes, crowned with up to 6 delightful blooms on each spike.
The plants we commonly call “Amaryllis” are actually Hippeastrum hybrids, and the confusion surrounding the two genera stems from their complex history dating back to the 18th Century. During the 1820s, British botanist, Dean Herbert (1778–1847), showed that the Amaryllis which is native to the Cape Province in South Africa, and Hippeastrum, also known as “Knight’s Star Lily” to be fundamentally different botanically and he assigned them to different genera. Considerable confusion has always surrounded the correct naming of this plant with many breeders, growers and traders persisting in referring to the plant incorrectly as “Amaryllis”. Because almost everyone still calls these bulbs, Amaryllis, for the purpose of this article, they will also be referred to by their common name. To put it simply, the true Amaryllis is a bulb which belongs to our indigenous Amaryllis belladonna, commonly called “Belladonna Lily” – a genus with only one species that is found in the south-western Cape.
Hippeastrums, however, are native to tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas from Argentina, north to Mexico and the Caribbean. The Hippeastrum genus comprises around 80 species within the Amaryllidaceae family, which also includes two other well-known bulbous crops: Narcissus and Galanthus. In the 18th century Dutch growers imported the first bulbs from South America to grow commercially, and this continued into the 19th century with even more botanists and explorers bringing back Hippeastrum species from South American countries. These magnificent blooms truly captured the imagination of plant breeders who worked diligently to create new hybrids and cultivars for the markets. Breeding developments continued throughout the second half of the 20th century, resulting in an explosion of new hybrids and types, in an expanded colour range. This period was also characterized by the establishment of many significant cultural research projects that resulted in the rapid expansion and professionalization of commercial hippeastrum cultivation.
In 1946 two Dutch growers moved to the Union of South Africa and began cultivation here, producing many beautiful hybrids for the world markets, and our bulb growers are still counted amongst the best in the world, with South African bred Hippeastrums being sought after across North and South America, all of Northern Europe, Japan, Russia and Iceland.
Amaryllis is traditionally grown in small pots but can also be planted into garden beds, where they look best if planted in groups. And, like hyacinths, amaryllis bulbs can also be grown on water by placing the bulbs on top of pebbles or marbles in a glass container and filling the container with water until just below the bulb. The roots will naturally grow down into the water, so never allow the bottom of the bulb to sit in the water or it will rot.
Amaryllis bulbs take approximately 6 to 8 weeks to bloom once planted out, and if you want blooms at Christmas time, plant them out around the 10th of November. This can be done by manipulating the bulbs to flower at a specific time, by placing them in a paper packet and storing them in the refrigerator. This tricks the bulbs into thinking that it is still winter and they remain dormant. Check the stored bulbs regularly, and if they do start shooting, plant them out immediately.
In the garden Amaryllis will grow in most good, well-drained soils. They flourish in sun to semi-shade, but the flowers will last longer if they are protected from the hot midday sun. Water your plants regularly in summer, never allowing the soil to dry out totally but not allowing it to remain soggy either. For the best results, feed every two weeks during the growing season with a special bulb food or liquid fertiliser for flowering plants.
Most amaryllis bulbs must produce at least four healthy leaves in order to bloom well the following year. Some species will grow leaves and bloom at the same time, while others will grow leaves only after they have bloomed. After the flowers fade, cut off the stems at ground level and allow the leaves to continue to grow and nourish the bulb for next season’s blooms. You should also continue to water and fertilise the plant, but towards the end of summer gradually reduce watering so that the leaves die back naturally. Once all the leaves are brown, cut them off and allow the bulb to rest by lifting and storing it in a paper bag, in a cool, dry place for at least 2 months. When the bulb is ready to grow again it will start to produce a green leaf or stem, and can be planted again in fresh soil.
If the soil drains well the bulbs can be left in the soil and divided only when they become overcrowded. It is not necessary to water the dormant bulbs from about April to the end of August, and you can wait for the new spring growth to emerge before feeding and watering again. However the bulbs won’t be harmed if watered lightly in winter, together with other winter bloomers, as long as the soil has perfect drainage.
If you live in the winter rainfall regions, or have a small garden, you may wish to lift and store the bulbs at the end of summer, but only do this after the foliage has died down naturally in autumn. The mother bulb will produce small ‘bulblets’ and these can be gently teased off and potted, but they will only be large enough to start flowering again in two to three years.
Container grown specimens are treated in the same way as those growing in the ground, but if you are planting into containers, do so before they begin to sprout. Amaryllis love growing in small containers, so select a pot only about 3cm larger in diameter than the bulb. Use a good potting mixture that drains very well, and plant the bulbs so that a third of the bulb is visible above the soil. Water and place in a warm location, watering very sparingly thereafter until the first signs of new growth appear in about 3 weeks. Once actively growing, feed every two weeks as for those growing in the garden, and water when the potting soil is almost, but not totally dry. Remember, potted bulbs do not like standing in water, so empty the water from drip trays. Also, turn the pot regularly so that the plant stems grow straight.
When your potted plants are in full bloom, you may prefer to move them indoors to enjoy, or you may move then into a more shady and secluded spot outdoors, which will keep the blooms looking good for longer. Once the leaves have died down naturally at the end of summer, the containers can be moved into a sheltered part of the garden where it is relatively dry and warm, to over-winter.
If you are growing your amaryllis indoors, planting and caring for them is the same as for potted specimens growing outdoors. Indoors they will require very good, bright light, and although they don’t need sun, a little sunlight won’t harm them either. To prevent root rot, water sparingly until the flower stem appears, but when it starts to grow, increase the amount of water you give, and check your plants regularly, because flowering plants are thirsty.
Amaryllis is a wonderful gift to give at any time of the year, but especially during the Christmas season. They never fail to delight and are certainly well worth investing in, and whether you are purchasing bulbs to plant out yourself, or those already in full bloom, these beauties are sure to steal your heart.
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