By Samantha Burbach – 12/15/2020
Another common plant we see on the market during the holiday season is the Amaryllis. These large flowers bloom on top of long flower stems with strappy basal leaves, all growing from a large bulb. The blooms come in a variety of colors, sizes, and petal forms.
The amaryllis bulbs that we find in stores this time of year are of the genus Hippeastrum, which falls in the Amaryllidaceae plant family. The Amaryllidaceae family includes 73 genera and over 1,600 plant species. Members of this family are primarily native to tropical and subtropical regions and feature bulbs or underground stems, and strappy leaves. The Amaryllidaceae family is also home to Alliums (onions, garlic, chives, leeks) and Narcissus (daffodils and jonquils), among many others. To make matters slightly confusing, there is an Amaryllis genus in this plant family that only holds two species, which are both native to South Africa, and these are not the amaryllis that we know and love this time of year.
The amaryllis bulbs we find for sale are of the Hippeastrum genus but use “Amaryllis” as a common name (I will be using “Amaryllis” as the common name in reference to Hippeastrum spp.). There are over 90 species and more than 600 cultivars in the Hippeastrum genus, which are native to areas of South America and the Caribbean.
Amaryllis flowers are comprised of 6 tepals – 3 true, inner petals and 3 outer sepals that look the same as the petals (rather than sepals’ typical green, leaf-like appearance). The flowers come in an array of colors, including red, white, pink, peach, orange, and burgundy, and even come in bicolor forms. Several large flowers are grouped together at the top of a hollow stem. The flowers do not open simultaneously and therefore the overall bloom period can last a few weeks. In addition to the range in colors, there are also a few different flower forms that you may find – single flowers (either small: 3-5 inches across, or large: 8-10 inches across), double flowers, Cybister flowers (long, narrow, spidery petals), and trumpet flowers (elongated, trumpet-shaped flowers).
While amaryllis are a very popular Christmas decoration and gift, they really do not have a historical association with Christmas. There are a few factors that make amaryllis a great choice for the holidays though. The most obvious reason is that the most common amaryllis colors of red and white make this beautiful flower perfect for the Christmas season. Although amaryllis plants naturally bloom in spring or summer, the bulbs are rather easy to force into bloom for the holiday season which adds to their appeal as a holiday plant. Amaryllis bulbs are often sold in decorative containers or even in kits which include a bulb, decorative pot, and soil disc so that you can easily (and non-messily!) give an amaryllis as a gift. Specialty varieties may be purchased from online vendors as bare bulbs so that you can purchase unique amaryllis varieties that you may not find in a store.
A newer product on the market is waxed amaryllis. These are the easiest amaryllis bulbs you can grow, as they are coated in wax to lock in all the moisture and energy needed to grow, so there is no need to water or plant the bulbs in soil. These make a great gift for anyone, especially someone who is not very good at remembering to water plants. The wax is decorative and generally set on a coil or disc so the bulb can be free standing in any holiday display. The downside to a waxed amaryllis is that the roots have been removed so it will only bloom once.
When choosing an amaryllis consider whether you or your gift receiver would want to keep your amaryllis longer than one season but know that you will need to water and care for it year-round to get another bloom, or think about whether you or your gift receiver would want an extremely low maintenance plant that doesn’t need any care or watering and then can be tossed at the end of flowering.
How to Care for a Potted Amaryllis
If you receive or purchase an amaryllis bulb that is not already planted – Use a heavy pot with drainage holes to plant your amaryllis bulb. Amaryllis prefer a snug growing space, so the container only needs to be about 1-2 inches wider that the widest point of the bulb and twice as tall as the bulb. Fill the container with a light, soilless potting mix and bury the bulb so that the upper one half to one third is above the soil line. Water in lightly so that the soil settles in around the bulb. Make sure the soil is firm around the bulb so that it is anchored in place.
Once your amaryllis bulb is planted, set the container in a sunny location at room temperature. Keep it away from any hot or cold drafts. Amaryllis stems can grow 1-2 feet tall which can make them prone to falling over. To help the stem grow straight, rotate the pot every day so that it does not stretch towards the sun in one direction. If you do notice your amaryllis stem leaning, you can use a plant stake and soft tie to help hold it upright, just be careful not to puncture the bulb when placing the stake. A stake will also help the amaryllis once it begins to bloom as they can become rather top-heavy.
Water your amaryllis when the potting soil becomes dry and do not let the pot sit in standing water. To promote blooming, you can use a diluted (one half strength) houseplant fertilizer that is high in phosphorus each time you water once new growth is visible.
Once the amaryllis begins flowering, move the container out of direct sunlight to lengthen the flower display. The flowers will open individually with a couple days in-between opening. Once a flower has faded, remove that individual flower to prevent it from putting its energy into producing seeds (and to keep the overall flower head looking nicer).
Keep Reading if You Want to Keep Your Amaryllis and Get it to Bloom Again
After all the flowers have faded, place your container back into a sunny location and leave the flower stalk until it has turned yellow because it will continue to photosynthesize and put energy back into the bulb to store for future growth. Continue watering throughout this time. Once the flower stalk has turned yellow, you can remove it but keep the green leaves on the plant.
After all danger of frost has passed in spring, you can place your potted amaryllis (bulb and leaves) outdoors in a location that receives morning sun. It is best to get your plant acclimated to the outdoors by first setting it in indirect light for a few days and then eventually placing it where it will receive at least six hours of sunlight. You can continue to fertilize the plant monthly using a balanced houseplant fertilizer. Bring the plant back indoors before any chance of frost in fall.
Amaryllis bulbs do not need a dormant (rest) period to bloom again, such as tulips or daffodils, however, you can manipulate when it will bloom again by giving it a dormant period. Therefore, you can try to get your amaryllis to bloom again around the holidays by beginning this dormant period in late September.
Bring your amaryllis pot indoors to a cool, dry, dark location, such as a basement, where it will stay for 8-12 weeks. Once the leaves have turned yellow or brown and dried out, remove them from the bulb. Refrain from watering during this time but check on the bulb for signs of mold or mildew. If you find mold or mildew, treat with a fungicide or dispose of the bulb. After 8-12 weeks, or if you notice new growth at any point before then, bring the container back to a sunny location and begin caring for it again as you did at the beginning. The flowers will generally develop 4 to 6 weeks after coming out of dormancy.
Every few years, you may want to repot your amaryllis into a slightly larger container but remember that they do not mind being potbound. The best time to repot an amaryllis bulb is after the dormant period.
How to Care for a Waxed Amaryllis
Place the waxed amaryllis bulb on a flat surface in bright, indirect light away from any hot or cold drafts. Rotate the bulb every few days to keep the flower stem growing upright. Enjoy!
OR, try this fun new way to display waxed amaryllis – hang it upside down! You can purchase amaryllis hangers that attach onto the bottom coils of a waxed amaryllis, or MacGyver your own hanger, to suspend the waxed bulb from the ceiling for an exciting and unique display!
After blooming simply dispose of the whole bulb or peel off the wax to compost the bulb. If the bulb still feels firm you can try to keep it growing like a potted amaryllis, however it will need to work harder to produce new roots, and may not survive.
Resources for Additional Information About Amaryllis
- University of Minnesota Extension: https://extension.umn.edu/houseplants/amaryllis#repotting-amaryllis-858666
- Chicago Botanic Garden: https://www.chicagobotanic.org/plantinfo/amaryllis
- University of Maryland Extension: https://extension.umd.edu/hgic/topics/amaryllis-care