Amaryllis care: Now and forever
But first, a swimming lesson from my childhood...

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When I was a little girl, I believed that I could breathe underwater like a fish. How cool could that be? Stay underwater as long as I wanted. Magic. Lord knows how or where I came up with this notion, but so convinced of this, I set out to prove it to myself.

One morning, I walked across the street to the neighborhood swimming pool. I stepped into the shallow end and then dog-paddled over to the diving area. Gazing into the water, I spotted a brick-sized weight on the bottom of the pool. Here was my chance. I dove down, grabbed the weight and cradled it like a baby.

Sitting on the gritty bottom, I opened my mouth w-i-d-e like a goldfish. Open then close. For a minute, everything went fine. Then my lungs began to ache. Doubt crept in, followed by disappointment, then survival. I dropped the weight, pushed off from the bottom and seconds later, broke through the surface like a cork blasting out of a champagne bottle.

From swimming like a fish to eggs to amaryllis: It's all in our mind

Yes, it's amazing how we convince ourselves that certain things are true. For example, many kids believe that eggs come from a cardboard carton. So does milk, right? So we find ourselves in the holiday season, which is loaded with beliefs. Here's one: Amaryllis bulbs with their tall, trumpet flowers originate from a square box. Oh, really?

amaryllis flower potsThe magic of marketing would lead us to believe that this popular holiday flower only exists in a boxed kit, better known as an amaryllis flower kit. What's with the box? Well, just like eggs need to be protected during shipping and handling, amaryllis bulbs need extra protection. After all, they originate in bulb farms south of the equator.

Showy and easy-to-grow, amaryllis bulbs deliver a burst of cheerful indoor color. It's a winter-weary person's dream come true: Just add water and green leaves appear; then a stem, followed by three or more enormous white, pink, red or striated flowers. All the actors appear as if on cue, the result of careful timing back on the bulb farm where the plants are "forced" into a state of readiness. All you have to do is add water.

Yes, blooming amaryllis is a welcome beacon in the darkest time of the year. Fitting then, that the Greek word amarysso or amarussein, from which "amaryllis" derives, means to sparkle, twinkle, or shine.

By the way, when shopping for an amaryllis, size matters. The bigger the bulb, the better the show. It's worth a few extra dollars to buy quality bulbs that have been carefully stored and handled. Which leads me to a few amaryllis care and feeding instructions.

Caring for amaryllis bulbs

If the bulb isn't already pre-potted in a container...

  • Put the amaryllis in a pot with two inches of high quality, general purpose potting soil all around. Leave about one-third of the bulb exposed; burying it completely encourages leaves at the expense of flowers.
  • caring for amaryllis bulbsWater the soil until it is moist or until the water drains out the bottom. Blooms will emerge in a month or two and can last for weeks. Most amaryllis bulbs provide two flower stalks the first year. Yes, unlike the snobbish poinsettia, it is fairly easy to get amaryllis bulbs to bloom the second year, which I'll cover in a moment. So don't toss it out come January.
  • Once it flowers, you can set the plant most anywhere in the house. Just remember, the warmer the room, the faster the bulb grows. Thus, you have a little control here: To coax plants into blooming quickly, put the pot in a sunny window. To delay flowering, keep it in a cooler spot.
  • When blooms appear, keep the plant away from heat sources such as wood stoves, vents and registers. When it stops blooming, make sure it gets four hours of sunlight, because the leaves need to collect solar energy to nourish the following year's blooms. Water when the soil is slightly dry to the touch. Too soggy, and the bulb will rot.

Speaking of rotting bulbs, my friend Sue (not her real name) told me a story. It seems her mother-in-law sent an amaryllis bulb in the mail. But when Sue, who lives in Kodiak, Alaska, went to the mailbox to collect her mail, "It, and the special dirt were frozen solid. I let the dirt thaw, but guess what? So did the bulb. Now it is a soggy, squishy mess."

Sue felt terrible, but held onto hope. She believed that by planting the bulb in warm soil the bulb would magically come to life, much like my belief that if I simply opened and closed my mouth underwater I could breathe like a fish.

replanting amaryllis

So, back to how to care for your bulb after it has bloomed. Remember, you can get more years out of this puppy...

When magic happens: The amaryllis re-bloom

Gardening newsletter and radio showWhen the flowers have faded, don't get too anxious. Water and care for your amaryllis as long as it has green leaves. Trim off the flower stems. As to the leaves, allow them to wilt naturally, but do not cut them off. Give the bulb as much light as possible and fertilize it monthly with a balanced, organic fertilizer. [Note: if you set the plants outside during the summer, choose a spot that gets some afternoon shade.]

Do all this until July or August.

At that point, your amaryllis needs rest and a much-needed vacation. Let the soil dry completely and store the pot in a dark, cool place (but not less than 50 degrees). In 2 or 3 months, retrieve the plants and cut off any lingering leaves. Return the plants to a sunny window and resume watering, but not soakingly. Amaryllis bulbs don't like wet, soggy feet. Flower stalks should appear from 3 to 8 weeks later, depending on the variety and conditions. With good care, your bulbs will bloom for many years. You believe me, don't you?

care of small amaryllis bulbs

Will the baby amaryllis bulbs grow?

If you find small amaryllis bulbs on or near the parent plant, you've just been blessed with free amaryllis plants. But like any blessing to come your way, you need patience. It can take 3 to 5 years for them to reach blooming size. But it's worth the wait (the price is right!). Simply pot them up in good quality potting soil and let them grow through the winter, spring and early summer; giving them a rest period in late summer and fall as I described above.

How I learned to breathe underwater like a fish

When I turned 18, I took a scuba diving class and became certified. And to this day, one of my favorite things to do underwater is to just sit on the bottom and watch the world drift by while I breathe like a fish.

Thanks for visiting,

Marion Owen, Kodiak, Alaska organic gardener

Thanks for visiting and please stop by again. I'll put the coffee on!

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