The amazing, ample amaryllis

With a bright palette as big as its blooms, the amaryllis proves a year-round dazzler

In the Garden

November 30, 2003|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Victorian playwright Oscar Wilde once said he could resist anything but temptation. Around the holidays, many people feel that way about amaryllis. We want them all -- the giant Dutch hybrids with blooms as big as soup bowls, the elegant singles with softly shaded petals like something out of a Vermeer painting, the miniatures (a relative term when it comes to amaryllis), the delicate Cybisters, and the gaudy doubles that are wildly ruffled and splashed with color.

Years ago, amaryllis were known for their one-note color schemes. They were all red. Like botanical stop signs. Boring. Luckily, breeders, who crave variety too, have added a wide range of colors and flower configurations. As a result, amaryllis is now the unboring bulb.

It offers a symphony of colors that currently includes cream, white, hot pink, salmon, coral, orange, tangerine, raspberry, peach, mauve, ruby, grenadine and red -- with more on the way.

"Hybridizers are working their socks off to produce a blue amaryllis," says Jo-Anne Ohms, owner of John Scheepers, a bulb company in Bantam, Conn.

While there's still no blue, there is a new, fragrant type called Trumpet Amaryllis, because its bloom resembles a trumpet lily. But unlike lilies, whose scent can be cloying, especially indoors, this strain of amaryllis subtly perfumes a space. "They have a lovely light fragrance," says Ohms.

Amaryllis (Hippeastrum) is a tropical bulb discovered in the Andes by a physician, Eduard Frederich Poeppig, on a plant-hunting expedition with his pooch.

"Unless you freeze them, they're super reliable bloomers," says Rene Beaulieu, Internet content manager at White Flower Farm in Litchfield, Conn.

"They are almost foolproof," agrees Steve Frowine, horticulturist at Dutch Gardens in Burlington, Vt., whose success with an amaryllis at age 10 seduced him into a horticultural career. "It's a great gift for kids," he notes. "Amaryllis grows so rapidly, kids can put a yardstick by it and measure every few days. And they get a great sense of accomplishment because the bloom is such a show stopper."

Many sizes, colors

In addition to the new fragrant Trumpet Amaryllis and the ever-widening color palette, there are now miniature, standard and giant varieties with varied bloom styles. One of the newest introductions is the distinctive Cybister Amaryllis, which has beautiful, multihued flowers that are like spidery starbursts. Though the Cybister hybrids are new on the modern scene, they come from venerable stock.

"The original Hippeastrum Cybister was introduced in about the 1840s," says Ohms. "Our cultivars have been hybridized to be more compact plants."

While amaryllis bulbs are traditionally sold for the holidays, only Christmas-blooming types, bred in South Africa, will be ready to bloom around the end of the December. The others take from eight to 12 weeks to bloom, so if you pot them up now, you'll be enjoying them about mid-February. Frowine always pots up some of each type, starting in about late October, so there is something blooming all winter.

Despite the wide range of amaryllis choices now available, many people still prefer red, though other colors are fast rising in popularity.

"People are choosing the bloom color to go with their decor," says Beaulieu.

"They make spectacular cut flowers for the centerpiece at a dinner party," adds Ohms. "I've seen them cut, tied in a big bunch with raffia, then stood by themselves in a bowl of water. Gorgeous."

To get cut amaryllis blooms to stand on their own, tie several together firmly without crushing the stalks, then slice the bottoms of the stalks up about 3 inches in ribbon-fashion so they curl back like an exploded cartoon firecracker to create a base.

Bigger is better

Most garden and home improvement centers now carry an assortment of amaryllis -- for example, Carroll Gardens in Westminster has about 10 different varieties -- though generally the catalogs still offer the widest selection. When picking out your own, choose the biggest bulbs. "The bigger the bulb, the more shoots and blooms it will have," says Beaulieu.

Plant bare-root bulbs in a pot about 3 to 4 inches wider than the bulb in a light potting mixture -- good drainage is critical. Leave about a quarter of the bulb top sticking out of the soil. Water sparingly until the first shoots appear. Once growth begins, water weekly. "But keep the soil barely slightly damp," warns Frowine. "To get them to grow quicker, you can give bottom heat, but don't fry them." (70 to 80 degrees is optimal.)

Be sure to keep an eye on the pot as the shoot grows, especially as it flowers. Amaryllis can easily become top-heavy and topple over if not weighted sufficiently.

"You can put polished stone or marble on the soil to weight it down or plant them in terra cotta, then put that inside a cache pot," suggests Ohms.

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