(Clockwise from top left) ‘Sweet Star,’ ‘Marilyn,’ ‘Apple Blossom,’ and ‘Bogota’
Amaryllis (Hippeastrum) are as integral to many households’ holiday decor as fir trees and twinkling lights. Planted in a small pot, the bulbs are easy to “force” into festive winter bloom: just place them near a sunny window and watch for a stalk to shoot up, bearing trumpet-shaped flowers that can last half a month.
But here in the Lowcountry, we’re lucky to be able to plant these showy perennials outdoors, too—and their color palette reaches far beyond Christmas red. “Many people don’t realize that amaryllis come in all different heights, forms, and hues—from bold pink to burgundy to striped patterns of green, red, and white,” says Charleston garden editor Joan McDonald.
Fall is the time to buy hippeastrum bulbs. “Local nurseries will have options in stock, but if you want to begin collecting more distinctive varieties, shop online,” McDonald advises. By doing so, you can even benefit area nonprofits. The Garden Club of Charleston and Charleston Horticultural Society each raise funds by selling plants from Virginia-based retailer Brent and Becky’s (find details at thegardenclubofcharleston.org and chashortsoc.org).
Amaryllis naturally bloom from March to May, depending on the variety. Those forced into winter bloom can be planted in the ground once the weather starts warming, but they won’t put on another show until the following year.
“There’s nothing subtle about amaryllis,” says McDonald. “They positively shout ‘spring.’” On stalks 12 to 24 inches tall, the super-sized flowers will stand up alongside snapdragons and fragrant stock and look especially striking when under-planted with alyssum, linaria, violas, pansies, or dwarf daffodils.
Planting Amaryllis Outdoors:
- If your amaryllis has been growing in a pot inside, acclimate it to brighter light by moving it to a sheltered outdoor location as temperatures begin to warm.
- In March, select a sunny spot with a little afternoon shade. Well-drained soil is essential, and soil rich in organic matter will yield the best growth.
- Plant the amaryllis so that the narrow top part of the bulb sits about an inch above the mulch line.
- Water thoroughly. After growth begins, you’ll only need to water in times of infrequent rain, or if the top two inches of the soil are dry.
- To give plants a boost, feed with an organic fertilizer such as Bulb-tone.
- When your amaryllis finishes blooming, clip off the flower stalks just above the bulb. Leave all healthy foliage, as it produces food that’s stored in the bulb.
Forcing Amaryllis Bulbs:
- Select one to three bulbs that have some roots at the base.
- Choose a pot that has a drainage hole and is about two inches larger in diameter than the bulb(s). Be sure the pot is heavy enough to support a large bloom. A six- to seven-inch container usually works well for one bulb, and a 10- to 12-inch container for three bulbs.
- Partially fill the pot with damp potting mix, then position the bulb and fill in more soil, leaving the top third of the bulb exposed.
- Water thoroughly and make sure the water drains from the pot.
- Place the pot in bright, indirect light. Water when the top inch or two of the potting mix is dry to the touch.
- Within two to eight weeks, a thick flower stalk should shoot up, followed by flat leaves. Rotate the pot a little every few days to help the stalk grow straight up.
- When the plant finishes blooming, remove the flower stalks. Leave the foliage on, as it produces food that will be stored in the bulbs. (If leaves turn yellow, however, you can cut them off at the base).
- If you'd like to plant the bulb outdoors, keep the plant indoors in indirect light until temperatures warm in March. You can also allow the foliage to die back and save the blooms to force again the following winter.