Amaryllis: Year Round Care

In a short growing season, many plant lovers move their much-loved tropical specimens inside for the winter, to bring some living greenery to the holiday season. One of the winter’s favorite holiday plants is the Amaryllis, or Hippeastrum.

Almost all plants sold as Amaryllis in stores and garden centers are actually Hippeastrum. Hippeastrum is very similar to Amaryllis; in fact, they are sister plants. Both are in the family Amaryllidaceae, and most plant owners would not notice the difference. Hippeastrum is easier to grow indoors and flowers better in those conditions than Amaryllis. Most likely, the bulb you bought that was marked "Amaryllis" is really Hippeastrum

Hippeastrum bulbs have a long history of indoor use, dating back to the 18th century. In warmer climates they can be grown outdoors year-round, but in cooler areas they must be brought inside to avoid freezing. Hippeastrum should be brought in when night-time temperatures are below 50°F.

The plant is a rather ungainly looking creature, consisting of a large bulb from which sprout long, narrow leaves with rounded tips. These leaves are a deep, rich green with a thick, leathery texture. Often, Hippeastrum bulbs will flower before the leaves appear, shooting up a tall, light-green flower stem with anywhere from 2 to 12 flowers at the top. Most varieties sold for the holiday season have huge, showy flowers that last a long time, provided the plant is watered properly. Light conditions can also affect the length of time your Hippeastrum flowers; several hours of direct sun daily is ideal, though once a bulb starts to flower, shady conditions will not stop it. Shade can make the plant stretch, however, which will weaken the stem to the point that it may not be able to support its flowers. Some Hippeastrum plants are so highly bred for huge flowers that they need to be staked, no matter how much sun they get.

While Hippeastrum is in flower, it will require more water. You should check it daily, but water it only when the soil is dry. The bulbs are prone to rotting and should be kept on the drier side. They are usually sold loose, so when you first purchase one, it will probably have no leaves or flowers, and very little root mass. Pick one that is firm and heavy, with greenish-white flesh and thin brown outside layers, like an onion. Be sure to avoid anything that feels squishy or dried out.

When you get it home, plant it in a pot that is only slightly larger than the bulb itself. A half to a full inch of space around the bulb should be sufficient; Hippeastrum flowers more profusely when pot-bound. Be sure to use a pot that has holes in the bottom, and avoid soil mixes with a lot of peat moss in them. Hippeastrum needs a more granular soil to encourage drainage and prevent the roots from rotting. Pack it firmly, but not too tightly, as the roots need air as well as water. Leave about one third of the bulb above ground. Then place it near a window where it will get some sun, and be patient. It can take anywhere from three weeks to three months for your bulb to bloom.

At first, you should be very careful about watering. The bulb will not be able to take up much water, and with no leaves or flowers, it cannot transpire. Let the soil dry completely between watering, until you see flower buds forming; then you can water more often, but still allow the soil to dry a bit in between. Do not fertilize while your Hippeastrum is in flower.

When Hippeastrum bulbs have finished flowering, many people throw them out because they consider the plant to be awkward and ugly looking. If you fall into this category, make sure your bulb is finished flowering first. Sometimes they can finish with one flower stalk, then shoot up another one three weeks later. As these bulbs are rather expensive, you want to make sure you get the most bang for your buck.

For those of you too soft-hearted to throw out a living plant, no matter how ungainly it looks, I have good news. You can get your Hippeastrum to flower for many years to come, and it will often create baby bulbs that will eventually flower like their parent bulbs. Usually, when your bulb is finished flowering, it will begin to produce long, strap-like leaves. It's best to move it outside in the summer, if your growing season is short. It must gather enough energy inside its bulb to flower again the next winter. Direct sun all day outside may burn the leaves, so try a partially shaded spot at first. Hippeastrum can be planted directly into your garden for an interesting shape and contrast, but be sure to leave a third of the bulb above ground, and be careful to avoid wet conditions. You can fertilize throughout the summer, after the plant has grown leaves. Use a regular houseplant fertilizer at about half the dosage recommended on the container.

By September, Hippeastrum should begin its rest period, so stop fertilizing, water less frequently, then stop altogether. If your bulb is planted in the garden, you will need to lift it out to protect it from the rain. Allow the leaves to turn yellow and then cut them off. Keep the bulb dry and cool for six to 12 weeks. Most people place their resting bulbs in the basement or garage. The ideal temperature for this rest period is between 45°F and 59°F. You may leave your bulb in its pot (as long as the soil is dry) or pack the loose bulb in wood shavings or dry peat. Don't put your bulb in the fridge, as this can cause it to dry out.

When the rest period is finished, bring the bulb out, give it a light watering and put it back in its sunny windowsill to start the cycle over again.

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