Winter’s royalty…

I’m going to take a quick detour from the San Jose gardens posts because…it’s Amaryllis Potting Up Day! Yup, that’s in capital letters because at my home it is an actual holiday worthy event. For at least the last twenty years I have potted up quantities of Hippeastrum hybrids, commonly called amaryllis, in the fall. My amaryllis intentions have ranged from growing a few to use as part of Christmas tablescapes all the way to potting several hundred a season to fuel a small home-based business when I lived in Georgia. My Georgia home had a 400 sq. foot sunroom drenched with light from 8 foot high windows on three sides, offering a perfect indoor greenhouse in which to winter force all sorts of bulbs–a serendipitous set up which I know I will never have again. Given the sheer number of these bulbs I have forced over my adult life I was amazed to find I had only a few photographs in my files. I don’t know the cultivar on this one but I can just see the tables full of plants in the background and the year indicates it is from the days when my sunroom ‘greenhouse’ was alive with color in early December.

Winter Queens 1

The amaryllis we force to bloom at Christmas time are mostly from a broad category called (no hort degree needed here) Christmas Flowering. These varieties are natives to South Africa and their southern hemisphere origin makes them especially eager to pop out of dormancy. Within this category the bulbs are then subcategorized based on their height and flower size as Symphony (largest), Sonata and Sonatini. Singles and doubles, solids and marked varieties exist in all categories. Christmas Flowering amaryllis typically come into bloom 4-6 weeks from planting.

I hold over plants (that I have not given away) for forcing in the subsequent year so in any given year I have a combination of previous years’ bulbs and newly purchased bulbs–after New Year’s I’ll add a post on what to do with your spent bulbs. I like to try a couple of new varieties each year. This year I am growing ‘Wedding Dance’ (single white), ‘Rozetta’ (double mottled pale pink), ‘Blushing Bride’ (another pink), ‘Razzle Dazzle’ (striped red and white), ‘Merry Christmas’ (single deep red) and ‘Gervase’ (yet another single pink). I also have a few held over which have become orphaned from their tags so each will be a new surprise. I purchase my bulbs primarily from Van Engelen Inc. which is the bulk quantity pricing arm of John Scheepers. Both are easily found on your internet search engine. A note about those bulbs in boxes at the big box and grocery stores–your results will look successful to you just until you see an amaryllis grown from a top quality bulb grower. Mail order bulbs from reputable growers are typically shipped out to the purchaser within a couple of weeks of their late September harvest. They are full and firm with new roots popping out, not shrunken and dried out looking. There is no telling when the bulbs in the prepackaged units came out of the ground and whether they have been stored at the proper temperature in the interim. Well, actually you know they haven’t as newly dug bulbs that you are not ready to plant should be refrigerated at 50 degrees with good ventilation–not happening at the mass market outlets!

So below you can see that I have retrieved my pots of last year’s bulbs from their dark resting place (artificially induced dormancy) and, keeping each cultivar separate, dumped each pot’s contents into a large plastic bin.

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They have been unwatered and in the dark since mid July. Not every bulb will be viable. Below you can see the contrast between the fat one (happy face–good for another year) and its neighbor (compost bin bound).

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This group is the variety called ‘Wedding Dance’ and some of these bulbs have been forced for several years. After a while they just don’t have much left and need to be replaced.

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My pots have been cleaned and partially filled with fresh, good quality potting mix.

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I clean up any dead root material from the base of the bulb and work the bulb a bit into the partially soil filled pot. Amaryllis like to be in a cozy pot with about 1/4 of the bulb above the final soil level. The bulb nose and shoulder above the soil prevent water from collecting in the sprout and rotting your bulb. Although you can force these bulbs sitting directly on pebbles with their roots submerged, bulbs planted in soil must have good drainage.

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Adding potting mix to the appropriate level.

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Giving this group a good drink and time to properly drain.

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The potting up date I select is based on how I will be using my plants and keeping the 4-6 weeks to bloom time in mind. Gifts for a ladies’ lunch the first week of December demand an earlier potting up date than having a beautiful bloom show for my Christmas Eve table. This year I will do a second mass planting 2-3 weeks from now to accommodate late December needs. I work each variety as a group and label every pot with the cultivar name and the date. In a perfect gardening world I would plant each variety over the course of several weeks so that I would have all my chosen varieties at varying stages of maturity, extending my bloom season. If anything every gets to be perfect in my gardening world you will be the first to know.

The Royal Dutch amaryllis is a second broad category you will find in catalogs and online. These originate in the Netherlands and bloom 8-12 weeks after planting. I have, with difficulty, forced these to bloom by Christmas by giving them ample bottom heat and a much warmer than average environment. Most bulb growers would prefer to make only a single shipment to each customer and thus send both kinds of bulbs out in mid-October, making holiday bloom a challenge. Probably the most well-known amaryllis in the retail market, a mid to pale pink called ‘Appleblossom’ actually falls in the Royal Dutch group–I have to think that its tendency must be more to the 8 weeks than the 12 weeks to bloom time. Two years ago I planted a container with 10 bulbs called ‘Hercules’ after a late bulb shipment (apparently a European harvest issue) the first week in November and I had this wonderful display for Valentine’s Day!

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Each bulb bore multiple 24″ stalks and the blooms measured easily 7-8″ across. It was such a breath of spring to come!

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‘Hercules’ is going to become MY Valentine’s Day amaryllis. It was almost May before the many waves of bloom stalks were finally spent. I lifted the bulbs and potted them up for gardening friends to hold over for the next year. A fresh dozen bulbs will refill my ceramic container and have two to spare for individual pots.

Because this large (20″ X 12″ X 8″ deep) container is actually a bottle cooler it has no drainage. I add a 2 inch layer of pebbles to the bottom and will be very careful with watering.

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A few inches of potting mix to make the bulb a cozy nest, a precise arrangement for fit, filling out the spoil to the bulb shoulders, and voila!

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All my newly planted amaryllis get a temporary home by my south facing dining room window. ‘Hercules’ gets a special spot on a heat mat to help him along. As the weather cools I will move them up to the loft to capture the natural movement of the warm air. About that time my second planting can assume their position in the dining room. As everything is nicely dampened now I will wait until the stems peek up to water again. The bins make it easier to rotate the pots’ positions for more even warmth from the sun.

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As with every year, I can’t wait to see the first bit of green emerge from these lifeless looking globes. Soon there will be a chill in the air and I will once again pay court to winter’s royalty.

3 thoughts on “Winter’s royalty…

  1. Those dang beladona lilies have naturalized here. In northern San Jose, I noticed amaryllis growing out in a front yard, seemingly just as easy as beladona lily. They don’t look as good outside, but it is interesting to see them anyway.

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    1. Welcome Tony! After the holiday I’ll post about planting vs keeping the amaryllis bulbs to force again next year. I have not had great luck with them in the ground-the snails love them-or I seem to forget where I put them and I accidentally dig them up!

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      1. I noticed that the snails like the foliage, but they seem to leave the flowers alone. You would think that they would get to the flowers because they open before the foliage, although the ones I see outside seem to be foliating while the flowers are still blooming. Either way, it seems odd that the flowers are so pretty while the foliage gets so munched.

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