Understanding amaryllis

Understanding amaryllis

My beautiful but confused amaryllis when it rebloomed in July.

My beautiful but confused amaryllis when it rebloomed in July.
My beautiful but confused amaryllis when it rebloomed in July.
I still remember my first Christmas-gifted amaryllis. The bulb was huge, and promised enormous blood-red flowers on a towering stem. A few long weeks after being potted and watched like it was on to boil, it delivered. Like magic. Like a big fat Santa Valentine.
Getting bulbs to bloom indoors is called forcing, but the instructions accompanying a brand new amaryllis bulb seem merely persuasive. We’re advised to plant it in potting soil with the top third exposed, in a pot only an inch or two wider than the bulb. Next step is to water it in, give it a warm spot with plenty of sun, and wait. Soon enough, usually within a month or two, as long as we’ve never been tempted to keep the soil so saturated that the bulb rots, a rather obscene (admit it, you think so too) budded stem begins to rise from the bulb’s neck. The trick then is to keep rotating the pot so that the stem, which leans towards the sun the way we all do in the winter, stays vertical. Really, nothing could be easier.
A bulb as massive as amaryllis should be good for more than one go but I have always been confused about how to coax — or force — a rebloom. The trouble is, I expect it to behave like other bulbs of my acquaintance. To put out some feeder leaves for a few weeks and then go dormant for the rest of the year. Consider daffodils. We only need to tolerate their foliage for a mere six weeks before ugly yellowing gives us permission to yoink it. Others, such as amaryllis’ cousin resurrection lily (Lycoris squamigera) photosynthesize for a short time in spring, disappear out of sight and mind only to surprise us by appearing again in late summer to bloom entirely without foliage.
Consequently my natural inclination with amaryllis has always been to induce dormancy by withholding water and light a few weeks after it finishes blooming. Then I eventually end up taking pity on its stubborn determination to grow and start watering it again. Despite my perennial misreading of their signals, I have been lucky enough that some of my bulbs have rebloomed anyway—usually at some weird time of year (like this past July), which has only deepened my confusion.
Turns out, amaryllis’ growing season is simply a long one, beginning when it flowers. And it makes sense, now that I really think about it, that they would need those great strappy leaves along with plenty of water and fertilizer and all the sun they can get for the better part of a year to feed another round of tremendous flowers.
So if Santa gives any of us another chance this Christmas, here’s what I think we should do: After each flower fades, cut it off at the stem to prevent any energy going into seed production. When all the flowers have gone by, cut the stem down to within an inch or two of the bulb. Pretend it’s still a thing of beauty and give it space on the sunniest windowsill. Fertilize it (once or twice monthly) and water it regularly before the soil dries out. Come summer, we should move it outside, gradually into full sun, wherever we’ll remember to continue watering and feeding it. Even if it sheds some leaves after the move, it will grow more.
Then, according to most of the advice I have studied, if we want Christmas flowers, we’ll have to induce dormancy early, starting in August. Reduce watering, stop fertilizing and move it into a cool location—temperatures should be in the low 50s.
If we don’t have a way to keep them cool during the heat of late summer, and are willing to wait for a more naturally timed bonanza sometime between Groundhog’s and St. Patrick’s Day, withhold TLC starting in September and leave them outside until frost and wherever they can stay cool (but never frozen) afterwards until the bud begins to emerge. Should take 8 to 10 weeks. That sounds so easy — and so intuitive, actually — that I can’t wait to try again.

Kristin Green is the interpretive horticulturist at Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum and has written their garden blog since 2007. Her first book, “Plantiful: Start Small, Grow Big with 150 Plants that Spread, Self-Sow, and Overwinter” published by Timber Press, will be released in January. Follow Kristin’s garden blog at http://blog.blithewold.org.