Category Archives: Amaryllis

Amaryllis: Trumpets of Winter

Written by Tovah Martin

Illustrations by Michelle Meyer

Reprinted with permission, excerpted and adapted from the December 2001/January 2002 edition of The Gardener magazine.

Gardening is not, in general, overburdened by foolproof flowers, but Amaryllises are as  close as you’ll come to foregone conclusions. Tuck an Amaryllis in a pot at the proper time of year, and chances are that in eight weeks you’ll see big, luscious blossoms —no cold treatment, no fuss, muss, or bother. In the realm of houseplants, these South American natives are a dream come true.

They’re embarrassingly easy, and I wouldn’t be without several Amaryllises staged about the house, planted in a staggered sequence for a long season of bloom. Because in winter who wouldn’t welcome big, bright blossoms? There’s nothing discreet about an Amaryllis, and that’s just what we crave in winter.

This particular brand of midwinter drama is a fairly recent affair. The history of Hippeastrums in cultivation is lengthy, but their presence in the trade has been brief. (Hippeastrum is the proper botanical name for the plants that we call Amaryllis, although botanists ousted them from that genus decades ago.) Like the true Amaryllis, A. belladonna, Hippeastrums are members of the Amaryllidaceae family. Beyond technical botanical differences, Hippeastrums differ in their region of origin. Amaryllis belladonna, with cheerful red, 4″ wide, tubular blossoms in late autumn and early winter, is native to South Africa. Hippeastrums, on the other hand, originate in South America, with species scattered through Argentina, Peru, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay.

A handful of Hippeastrum species arrived in Europe late in the 17th century, and though they tended to have thinner petals and didn’t boast the broad trumpet look that we associate with today’s Amaryllises, the species’ flowers were flamboyant. And for plant breeders, they held great promise.

The first hybrid appeared in about 1799, when an enterprising British watchmaker took H. reginae (5″ long, bright red flowers) and bred it to H. vittatum (striped red-and-white 6″ flowers).

Amaryllis undoubtedly reached the U.S. not long after they arrived in Britain, given that bulbs are able to withstand long journeys intact. It wasn’t until the 1930s, however, that they had any presence, commercially speaking. Moreover, until the 1950s their popularity was restricted to the southern U.S., where they were used primarily as bedding plants. They worked well in that capacity, providing color when other bulbs were in a lull.

At some point around the 1950s, someone saw the potential for Amaryllises as indoor plants. Breeding for this purpose progressed by fits and starts for quite some time, but 20 years ago hybridizing suddenly became frenzied. As a result, petal and flower size increased substantially, and the color spectrum has expanded similarly, moving beyond the longstanding palette of white, pink, and red. Not only have oranges and peaches appeared (my favorite is ‘Nagano’), but picotee-edged, striped, streaked, and flowers with throats of contrasting color have also shown up in greater numbers.

On their normal schedule, Amaryllises grow for eight to nine months after flowering, typically slipping into dormancy in September. They then require a nine- to ten-week dormancy period before beginning the cycle again. In Holland, where Amaryllises have traditionally been hybridized and grown, the October harvest makes it difficult to produce flowers by the holidays. That’s why South African hybrid Amaryllises are also popular.  There’s another solution to the desire for early blooming plants: smaller flowering types, which tend to bloom more rapidly than their outsize kin. This explains the downsizing of a flower that everyone worked so hard to inflate. The so-called miniatures aren’t actually smaller in stature than regular Amaryllises—the overall size and the length of the flower spikes are virtually the same, sometimes even greater than the large-flowered types. But the blossoms are one-third the size.

Hyrbidizers are continuing to expand not only flower size but also the spectrum of colors. The push is on to create a true golden yellow. And blue might be in the future, too.

Getting the Best Flowers

Amaryllises are as close as you’ll come to no-fail flowering houseplants, but they still have their druthers. Achieving the first spike can hardly be avoided—they’re so eager to blossom, in fact, that Amaryllis bulbs often arrive with the snout of a flower bud poking out of the bulb. Even if that spike has made progress, it always straightens out and greens up when you get it potted.

Soil is not a big issue, although a well-drained potting medium is preferred. Much more crucial is proper watering. Over-generous watering when you first pot an Amaryllis can cause bulb rot and poor root development. Better to let the bulb dry out between drinks.

Plant Amaryllises so the top quarter of the bulb is exposed above the soil level. Firming the bulb into the soil helps prevent the plant from tipping over when balancing a full head of flowers. Potting in a clay pot also anchors plants. Staking the stems is another good preventive measure.

I always assumed that Amaryllis spikes stretched long or stayed short depending upon environmental conditions—longer spikes being the result of too much heat and too little light. But in fact certain varieties are bred for longer spikes (though it’s true that any Amaryllis grown in a dark corner with the heat cranked high will get leggy). A distinct, long-stemmed breed has been developed to fuel the cut flower trade. Furthermore, all Amaryllises tend to make shorter flower spikes late in the season.

A temperature of about 55˚-60˚F is ideal for keeping your flowers in prime condition. This will prolong a spike’s bloom for roughly six weeks. Then there’s always the promise of further spikes to come: as many as two or three are typical if you continue to water the
bulb regularly but sparingly.

After blooming finishes, the growth cycle begins. Rather than struggling to keep your Amaryllis content indoors, you might as well entertain it outdoors in the garden, watering and fertilizing the bulb as you would any other garden plant. Reduce water around Labor Day to provoke dormancy, and when colder temperatures arrive in autumn, bring the bulb back indoors, storing it in a cool (but not cold—45–50 degrees F works well), dark place. Then begin the potting-blooming-growing cycle once again.

Sounds simple and easy. All the same, I often have trouble coaxing Amaryllis to bloom for the second time. I always assumed that the fault lay with inattentiveness on my part during the busy summer months. But Thomas Everett eased my conscience.  Apparently, he experienced the same problem, and in his Encyclopedia of Horticulture he explains that, unlike other bulbs, Amaryllis roots are accustomed to growing year round. However, the bulbs are cut clean for shipping. Everett’s theory is that the effort of regrowing roots often precludes flowering in the second year. So, there’s always year three and beyond.

I’m never without an Amaryllis in winter. Every year there’s another shade, or a different spin on the same theme to try. Something with more green in the throat, or with more petals — there is always some new temptation waiting to lure me in. And I’m willing. An Amaryllis in winter is worth a whole brigade of spring bulbs.

 

 

Staff Members Choose Their Favorite Amaryllis

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Choosing which Amaryllis varieties to order for yourself or as gifts can be a challenge. This is especially true if you’re selecting from among the 84 varieties we’re offering this season. When choosing, some of us instinctively select by color – red, pink, white, or bicolor. Others by form – Single, Double, Nymph, Cybister, or Small-Flowering. If you’re looking for more help in narrowing your choices, read below. We asked 12 staff members to choose one favorite Amaryllis variety and to tell us why it’s their top choice. Their remarks might steer you to some surprises. (The photos of these glorious flowers probably won’t hurt either.)

Amaryllis 'Spartacus'
Amaryllis ‘Spartacus’

Amaryllis ‘Spartacus’

‘I’d have to pick ‘Spartacus’ for it’s large blooms and bold color and pattern. The red and white provide a wonderful contrast, while not overpowering each other. Plus when the sun hits it just right the petals produce an iridescent shine you can get lost in.’

Sean

Amaryllis 'Tres Chic'
Amaryllis ‘Tres Chic’

Amaryllis ‘Tres Chic’

‘I love this amaryllis because although it has smaller blooms it makes up for it by knocking my socks off with tons of long lasting flowers. I usually get three to four flower stalks per bulb with 4-6 blooms per stalk. The blooms are gorgeous, the green throat and the contrast between the white centers and the beautiful red outer edge is just classically beautiful. If I could pick just one to grow every year (which I never do), this would be it!’

Martha

Amaryllis 'Purple Rain'
Amaryllis ‘Purple Rain’

Amaryllis ‘Purple Rain’

‘One of my favorite varieties is ‘Purple Rain.’ The large, exotic bi-colored blooms are so striking you have to get close to see if they are real. The closeup reveals intricate veining and a gorgeous sheen to the flower.  (And it’s the perfect year to honor Prince!)’

Barb

Amaryllis 'Picotee'
Amaryllis ‘Picotee’

Amaryllis ‘Picotee’

‘I like ‘Picotee’ – it has a very delicate flower, neutral palette, and it strikes me as funny/fascinating that there’s genetic coding for the edging color, which seems like pure ornament . . .’

Eliot

Amaryllis 'Lagoon'
Amaryllis ‘Lagoon’

Amaryllis ‘Lagoon’

‘My fave is ‘Lagoon.’ Years ago we had ‘Vera,’ almost the same, a gorgeous rich pink. No star in the middle. I love it after the holidays because it is not red or white. It goes with green so well, and we have lots of shades of green in our house. When I force paperwhites, they look beautiful together. And the blue hyacinth as well.’

Susan

Amaryllis 'Double Delicious'
Amaryllis ‘Double Delicious’

Amaryllis ‘Double Delicious’

‘I love the bright red pop of color, the sculptural flowers, and the large size of the double blooms! Every time I see it, it brightens my day, and lights up my office!’

Liz

Amaryllis Benfica®
Amaryllis Benfica®

Amaryllis Benfica®

‘My fave is Benfica because that rich, deep red has bloomed in my house through the beginning of February so it’s like love is exploding on my mantle on Valentine’s Day.’

Mary

Amaryllis 'Alfresco'
Amaryllis ‘Alfresco’

Amaryllis ‘Alfresco’

[Two staff members picked this one!]

‘As a gift or for myself, the white blooms go with any décor, and they are uniformly enormous and showy. They really do prompt people who receive them to thank me twice – once when they get it, and once again when it blooms. Last year, I got a hand-written note about one . . .’

Margret

‘Incredibly prolific, lots of stems holding lots of blooms, the blooms seem to just keep coming!’

Rob

Amaryllis 'Aphrodite'
Amaryllis ‘Aphrodite’

Amaryllis ‘Aphrodite’

‘The ‘Aphrodite’ Amaryllis is my favorite for its beautiful coloring and ruffled edges. It is a true feminine beauty that will draw you in, and the name speaks for itself!’

Shantelle

Amaryllis 'Flamenco Queen'
Amaryllis ‘Flamenco Queen’

Amaryllis ‘Flamenco Queen’

‘Best one I remember from last year’s trials was ‘Flamenco Queen.’ What struck me was the dark red color with white overtones on top of each flower with the lighter reddish white bottom. The lighter color on bottom most of the time had a red edge to the flower petal, not only very striking visually, but also the lighter bottom was very consistent in all the flowers.’

Ray

Amaryllis 'Terra Mystica'
Amaryllis ‘Terra Mystica’

Amaryllis ‘Terra Mystica’

‘In trials last year, this one stood out from all the others. A small-flowering variety, it produces a remarkable number of blooms in a warm terra-cotta color. Each petal is neatly edged in white as if a very fine tailor had seen to every last detail.’

Deb

Amaryllis in Greenhouse

The Amaryllis Trials Are On

Amaryllis trials 2016

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.

Lorraine Looks for Amaryllis with Interesting Color Combinations
Lorraine looks for Amaryllis with Interesting color combinations.

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.

pink and white Amaryllis
Pink and white Amaryllis

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.

Our head gardener, Cheryl Whalen, is the only one allowed to water the trial Amaryllis!

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.

Amaryllis in greenhouse
This year’s trials include almost 500 bulbs, some are brand new to us, others are classics and favorites that we retrial to monitor quality.

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.)

Amaryllis with numbers
This Amaryllis has no name yet!

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.”

Greenhouse full of blooming Amaryllis
Winning varieties will be offered to customers as soon as breeders can provide enough bulbs.