In the midst of a Connecticut winter, one of our greatest pleasures is to make our way each day to the greenhouse where we annually conduct our Amaryllis trials. Picking our way across a wintry landscape with snow-covered acres and bare trees, we open the door onto a scene more closely reminiscent of the tropics. A burst of moist air fogs up our eyeglasses, the scent of damp earth greets our noses, and rows of colorful blossoms sparkle in the winter sun.
Our Amaryllis trials are many months in the making. The process begins in March when our company president, Lorraine Calder, visits growers in Holland and selects new varieties to sample. She might also take a fresh look at some tried-and-true varieties that have been grown for years and are ripe for a comeback. All of the bulbs she is shown are 2 years old, which matches the age and size of the bulbs White Flower Farm offers its customers.
In making her selections, Lorraine keeps an eye out for Amaryllis that are different in some way from the varieties we currently offer. She might be drawn to an Amaryllis that flowers in a unique color, shows interesting patterns or details on its petals, has a notable blossom size or shape, or has a stem that is especially tall, or short or colored. She seeks out Amaryllis varieties that have considerable flower power and have been shown to consistently produce a generous number of blossoms.
Lorraine makes her final selections and places the order for bulbs. As she returns to Connecticut, the bulbs are planted in greenhouses in Holland then, months later, harvested and loaded into temperature-controlled shipping containers for their trip across the sea. When they arrive in Connecticut the following November, our head gardener, Cheryl Whalen, begins the trialing process. In December, she pots the bulbs in soil and places them in the greenhouse where they receive occasional water and the brightest sun that winter has to offer.
The number of Amaryllis varieties tested each year varies. This winter, we’re trialing almost 20 new ones, which means growing roughly five to 10 bulbs of each type. In addition, we’re growing a sampling of the varieties we currently offer. It’s the surest way we know to make certain that year after year, these bulbs meet our expectations – and yours.
Each trial process generally includes a range of varieties: Single, Double, Bicolor, Cybister, Small-Flowering, and South African. As the bulbs sprout stems and begin to flower, a process that unfolds over roughly 8 to 10 weeks, Cheryl follows the development of each variety, taking notes and pictures. Bulbs are evaluated for vigor, quality of individual attributes, and overall performance, and to determine whether or not they live up to a growers’ billing.
When the new Amaryllis achieve full bloom in and around late January or February, a team of staff members selects “winners,” the varieties that will be offered to White Flower Farm customers. Only varieties that are beautiful, unusual, and absolutely reliable for high performance are chosen. Plants that do not measure up to our expectations or too closely resemble varieties we already offer are eliminated.
As the different varieties reach their peak blossom stage, the editorial staff gets involved, taking notes for copy. Editor Ann Travers and her team measure petal widths, blossom sizes, and stem heights. She records specific details about colors, patterns and growth habits. Our photo staff takes the images you later see in our catalogs and on our website. Amaryllis in full blossom are sometimes photographed in the greenhouse. Other times, they’re moved (very carefully!) to locations away from the farm. (Transporting them is no easy trick in winter, given the temperatures outside and the jostling they get in the vehicles transporting them.)
Some of the new Amaryllis varieties arrive pre-christened with names provided by their growers. Varieties with no names are assigned numbers for the trial period. Later they’ll be named by our Dutch partners, or we’re given the fun job of choosing what to call them.
Bulbs selected during the trial process are not always available for the following year’s holiday catalog. If a bulb is a new introduction, it can take several years to grow a sufficient quantity to offer it widely.
Pressed to choose a favorite among all the Amaryllis she has ever trialed, our head gardener sums up the way most of us around here tend to feel: “The Amaryllis are all unique in their own special way, especially if you meet each variety in person as I’m fortunate to do each season,” she says. “Photos in the catalog can never quite capture the essence of each bloom . . . I love them all.”