November 17, 2013

AMARYLLIS CONFIDENTIAL




It seems everywhere we look today, there are amaryllis. On those hip lifestyle blogs "white Amaryllis for Christmas", on Pinterest ( you know, "how to grow an amaryllis in a jar"), every single retail store has them merchandised in handy kits on endcaps, even your local hardware store carries these easy-to-grow and showy giants. "They're just McMansion housewife flowers" one of my younger, and most cynical  graphic designers called them, this past weekend.  Ugh. Probably because they can look as tasteless as a tacky Holiday sweater to some who cannot associate memories or nostalgia with them, but the amaryllis has much more to offer than mere holly berry red and snowman white seasonal metaphors worthy of a Restoration Hardware catalog cover.

The genus is broad and the newest hybrids, exotic spider flowered 'cybister' types, dwarf miniatures and curious rare species can be so incredibly interesting, that getting bored is hardly an option. For me, who comes from a time when there was only 5 forms available, todays wide selection can only mean that the amaryllis is becoming more and more interesting each and every year. After all, amaryllis really deliver on all fronts, except perhaps fragrance. It really all comes down to finding the best varieties, and growing them in the best manner. So I will share my amaryllis secrets ( and even a few personal gripes) with you.
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There was a time, (like way back in the mid 1960's when I started growing these giant bulbs as a kid), when obtaining an amaryllis was more challenging than it is today, but today, Amaryllis are everywhere. Pre packaged bulbs advertise that they are as easy-to-grow as paperwhite narcissus, and Yes, they ARE that easy to grow, but they are not completely fool proof, and like anything when it comes to plants, there are some essential facts one must know if one intends to master these delightful plants. 

If you are in a hurry, here is my executive top-line.

1  1.   Buy your bulbs from a reputable grower -  My bulbs come from all sorts of placed, but my best bulbs come from White Flower Farm ( they have the largest bulbs and although they are expensive, I find them worth the cost). I also buy some from my local supermarket, don't worry. Most every amaryllis bulb will bloom

      2. Grow them like a big boy ( or big girl) – that means no vases with stones, no jars, canning jars with coir, no bulb vases – there is a reason why they stopped making them in 1608). Bulb forcing jars are great for many Dutch bulbs such as hyacinths and crocus, but I personally don't like to use them for amaryllis. If you just love the look of amaryllis in a glass vase with gravel, then use a tall vase or vessel, and place the bulb in the bottom of the container, so that they sides of the vessel can hold the tall stems erect.

      3. No matter what other blogs may tell you, amaryllis are not that easy to rebloom.  I applaud all efforts that go into keeping a bulb through the year, but I find it difficult to justify the care, and the space. I give you permission to throw your bulbs away when you are done. 

      I am just being realistic. Read on, and you’ll see why.




I grew my first amaryllis in the 1960’s when I was just a wee kid, purchasing a large, fat bulb with the bud just emerging from a local hardware store (Spags – as in “No Bags at Spags”). Thanks to my who had a strict limit as to how much I was allowed to spend on Mallocups and Dutch bulbs, I could somehow afford to add a couple of amaryllis bulbs into my allotment.  This idea of a parent allowing me to spend my allowance on  paperwhites, baseball cards, amaryllis and Hot Wheels – not always in that order. You guessed it, I was not your ‘normal’ kid. Unless you consider weaving potholders and saving your own radish seeds as an expression of ‘normal’. 




Getting bulbs to bloom for Christmas

Many of us now associate large, showy red and white amaryllis with the Holiday season, but the truth is, this is a bit early for most amaryllis bulbs being forced into bloom in the Northern hemisphere, as most need 10-14 weeks to emerge and bloom, often in late January or February.  Christmas blooming amaryllis is actually a newer trend, which is why you may be noticing some bulb catalogs separating Christmas-blooming varieties from regular named varieties. The bulbs sold as Christmas blooming, are generally ( or should be) those bulbs that have been grown in the most southerly part of Earths Southern Hemisphere ( mainly Peru, Chile and South Africa), and indeed, these are ones best chance in getting an amaryllis that will bloom in time for Christmas.

Just purchasing ones amaryllis  bulbs early, and then planting them by Thanksgiving will not guarantee that you will have flowers by the New Year. One must be certain that the bulbs purchased came from a reliable source, and one which ensures that the bulbs have been properly grown in the most southerly party of the southern hemisphere as these are the bulbs that are most likely to bloom for Christmas. 



The Proper Way to grow Amaryllis

It’s true, one cannot go wrong with an amaryllis bulb, at least if you just want it to bloom. It really doesn’t matter on the price or size, or where it came from, as the flowerbuds have already been formed deep inside the bulb, and it is essentially preprogrammed to grow, ( even the term ‘forcing’ isn’t really right in this case, but OK,  I’ll let it slide), and unless they have been exposed to freezing temperatures, there is often no stopping an eager amaryllis from blooming, ( you know, those sad, twisted white stems emerging from the bulbs at Home Depot). They are dumb easy.

But, they can be grown to perfection, and here’s how:

Most species in the Amaryllis family truly don't go botanically ‘dormant’ , rather, the foliage may dry in summer heat, but they large fleshy roots continue to grow. You large bulbs have had their root removed for shipment, so this shock sometimes affects flowering in your bulbs second year, as Hippeastrum ( amaryllis is only their common name) form flower buds at least two years in advance, and they are stored deep inside your bulb.




The Importance of Amaryllis Bulb Size


Which brings us to bulb side, and number of stems. I know, we would all love an Amaryllis with 5 or more bud stems, but that just isn't going to happen no matter what the plant catalog photo shows. Most amaryllis  bulbs will produce at least one fat bud, but the real skill comes in nurturing your bulb trigger the emergence of a second and if you are truly blessed, a third bud. 

Amaryllis are sold commercially by size, and size equates cost, in most cases. You get what you pay for with amaryllis. All amaryllis are sold by centimeter  ( look for 30 cm to 40cm bulbs if you want the promise of more than one stem from a bulb). This is why I suggest White Flower Farm as your retail source ( there are other sites that offer large bulbs, but then one must factor in variety, and WWF offers an enormous selection of new varieties not found elsewhere). They are my favorite sources for Amaryllis ( again, I have never been paid by them, nor even talked to anyone there, I just like their sources, their buyers taste, and the selection they offer – plus, I have had excellent success with them).

They buy the largest bulbs available, and most produce 3 stems, which can make a $35  bulb much more justifiable. When buying a bulb, look for the .cm size, and suddenly, those prices will begin to make sense. Sure you can buy an $8.99 bulb, as I did last week that is 30+cm, but they are hard to find. ( thanks Wegmans!).



The Business of Amaryllis


Obviously, the business side of amaryllis is indeed big business. The largest wholesale amaryllis growers are in the Netherlands, yet some growers are in New Zealand, Israel and Peru. Just to give you an example of the size of the agribusiness  side of amaryllis -since 1999, the top ten Israeli growers supplies only 6% of the global demand for amaryllis for the Christmas Season, and that is about 30 million bulbs, annually. ( from the Dutch floriculture industry report on Amaryllis).
I made a huge error in this post earlier, but a kind reader pointed out that Amaryllis ( the 'true' Amaryllis is actually Amaryllis belladona, and native to South Africa - this plant has nothing in common with the bulb we all know and love as the Amaryllis, which is botanically a Hippeastrum. which is native to South America - Amaryllis ) um, I mean Hippeastrum are true New World plants). ( know, the whole Geranium/Pelargonium thing, right? Crazy taxonomists).

Propagating Amaryllis

           
Seeds may seem like an easy way to grow amaryllis, but today, most are grown via micropropagation - tissue culture, as it is far more practical than raising new plants from seed. If you have seed set on your amaryllis, you can certainly try, but it is a futile venture. Amaryllis seed is notoriously fussy and it has a low rate of germination, even for the experts. So if you have seed, one or two may germinate, but considering the time it will take for you to grow-on the seedlings, the complex nutrition required and the light quality – basically, anyone who is telling you that you can grow your amaryllis from seed is terribly amateurish.

The only time growers bother to propagate from seed is when they are breeding for new varieties, or when they are looking for variation. The rest? We can thank some scientist for the creation of 'tissue culture'  -a method of starting millions of plants in a laboratory from cells ensures perfection, and supplies us with the multiple clones of a specific selection – i.e. named varieties that you see in catalogs.

If I wanted to multiply a bulb, I would cut the bulb, split like an onion, and try to attempt basal plate propagation as I do when I bulb chip nerine, but really – it’s just not worth it, as rot, the time required for proper growth to blooming size. I rather buy my bulbs.

How to get your Amaryllis to rebloom

If you insist on trying to rebloom your bulbs next year ( I have done it, but it does have its downside), here is my best advice:

Remember -Your bulb is a plant, and in order to achieve any success, you will need to plan on not just growing your bulb, but on cultivating it. Plants are living things, which require proper care based on sound, horticultural science.  So plan on finding the proper nutrients ( low nitrogen, high phos.and pot), the proper micro nutrients, the right amount of sunlight and day length, and the best soil medium you can provide.  Amaryllis prefer a porous, faster draining soil,  with some organic matter, but perhaps with more perlite or gravel than one may think that they need. 

Amaryllis require a soil pH of 6.5, which makes the idea of growing them in pure peat or coir as they commercial distributors often supply with your bulb, absurd. Find a good, balanced professional potting mix, and add 30% gravel or perlite to lighten the mix, along with dolomitic limestone. One potted, your amaryllis should not need repotting for 3 years in this soil, which it will appreciate, for as I mentioned earlier, amaryllis dislike anyone touching their roots, let alone cutting them off.

Starting your own Amaryllis from seed


I need to be honest – raising your own amaryllis from seed is a bit of a silly idea for most people to attempt. It is  best left to the inexperienced amateur gardeners, and some bloggers who I found who somehow, love to post about their 'unbelievable ease in both pollinating and raising their own amaryllis' ( I know, right?).  Let's be sensible. However, your amaryllis may set seed, but  the odds are not in your favor , as your seed will be mostly sterile.

If you live in the southern US, you might be saying “why,  Matt, we have lots of amaryllis growing in our gardens, and some even form large clumps,. They aren’t that tough to grow.”

True, but those old types ( often referred to as “Mead types” the ones you are most likely talking about) are forms developed by a Dr. Mead decades ago in Florida. These old varieties are more likely to come ‘true from seed’ , but they are nothing like the large Dutch varieties which most people want in their homes during the Holidays. Oh, and if you have seeds of these, please share. 


Diseases


There is one more reason why I don’t recommend saving your bulbs, and this is a serious one. Amaryllis are highly prone to Virus’ and fungus will get them if your aggressive watering talents don’t.

Most, if not all commercial amaryllis bulbs carry a mosaic virus and a nasty fungus called ‘Red Blotch” (Stagonospora curtissi). There is almost no avoiding it, eventually. You may even have seen this disease already, but thought that it was some weird scratchy scar on a stem – it’s rather harmless if you are disposing of the plant, but it will most certainly interfere with any dormant flower buds for next year, as the fungus is spread throughout the bulb scales and foliage. It is for this single reason, that I dispose of most of my bulbs every year after they bloom.

These diseases can cause stems to curl, split or sometime even to fold over under their own weight and break. Those red scabs are so common on amaryllis, that growers call it damn ‘Red blotch” . It is the bain of all commercial houses who breed and grow amaryllis, and staff must wear protective clothing, booties, hose-downs and all bulbs are dipped in fungicide annually. The fungus,  called Stagonospora curtisii is omnipresent in the clan – harmless to us, but sadly, it’s the AIDS in the world of amaryllis.

If you are serious about growing-on your amaryllis, here is the ugly part – you will need to drench your bulbs in fungicide too. A one  half hour soak is required, as the chemical must be absorbed systemically. And not any fungicide will do, you must use a fungicide called Benlate™  ( not Captan as it does not work as well). Don’t assume that your bulbs are clean, for most bulbs already have been exposed to Stagonospora.

 I know, not easy for most people to do, but the science doesn’t lie when it comes to floriculture. Anyone who tells you to not worry about fungus and virus’ when it comes to amaryllis growing clearly has not grown amaryllis for profit.



Sizes of amaryllis from major retailers:

Just a few retail sites and their bulb sizes.

Wooden Shoe Bulb Farm  30-32 cm
Holland Bulb farms (limited selection) 30-32 cm  $20.97
Amaryllis Bulb Company 30-32 cm  $18.00
White Flower Farm 40 cm + $35 -$45

11 comments :

  1. Wow, extensive Matt. Fantastic info. I'm sharing it everywhere because you're so right, amaryllis bulbs must be big. That's the best ones. I bought several this year, and I'm embarrassed to say, i am growing two in bulb vases. However, all the rest are in soil. I do grow some of the other bulbs, like hyacinths, in pebbles. Amaryllis need room to stretch their roots. Can't wait to see yours. I'll take pics of mine soon when they bloom.~~Dee

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  2. Thanks Dee! Hey, no problem growing them in vases if you are going to dispose of them, right? I still may grow some this way ( for the Holiday display, but not with expensive bulbs!). Besides, here in New England, it might be our cold in December that makes them more difficult in water. Hope all is super for you in OK - miss ya!

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  3. Daniel Otis1:28 PM

    Hi Matt--

    Good article, as always. But let me disagree with you on one point. I always carry over my amaryllis bulb, which is descended from one that some child gave to either my aunt or my mother, perhaps 10 years ago. It flowers every year.

    I don't like throwing away bulbs--it's downright unhorticultural. And so for years when I rescued an amaryllis, I would try to carry them over into the next year. Sometimes I succeeded for a year or two, but the bulbs generally expired after a few years.

    Then, a friend told me the secret: keep them inside until the end of June. I'm in Ithaca; any amaryllis put outside earlier will be attacked by onion maggot, hollowed out, and turned to mush.

    I've been keeping them indoors till June for a number of years now, and my original single bulb has 7 offsets, most of which produce at least one spike every year. I've never divided them, so I sometimes have a pot with 6 flower stems at once. It's just a plain old cherry red cultivar, but it's still pretty impressive.

    I've never used a fungicide, but perhaps I'll start. My routine is simple: from June until October, I grow it outside, in good sun (having slowly accustomed it to sun after months in the relative dark in the house). When the leaves begin to yellow, I put it in the basement (temp in the 50s) and leave it bone dry for 3 or 4 months. Then I bring it into warmth and sun in a window and start to water and fertilize a bit. I get flowers usually in February or March. Once they're done, the plant puts out more leaves, and isn't much to look at for a few months. Then back outside July 1 or so.

    If I were going to start over, I'd choose one of the spectacular new cultivars and plan on keeping it going for decades. Or maybe buy 6 or 8 bulbs, put them in my biggest pot, and let them produce offsets until I had a plant with 20 flowering stems in February. Now that would be a show.

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  4. Thanks Daniel,
    I wonder if your red variety is an older form? I have had some luck keeping a few over, but the results re often not impressive. I agree with your note about the onion maggot, or narcissus fly - I keep all of my amaryllids under glass until late June for the same reason - I've lost far too many Cyrtanthis this way.

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  5. Hi. I live in Boston and do just as Daniel does. Bring them outside in summer and fall. I get blooms in Feb/March. I prefer having blooms in late Winter when I'm desperate for signs of spring! I have a "Red Lion" that I got in Target years ago that does great and has produced lots of offsets. Some bulbs I've gotten in the past couple of years haven't done so well. I've noticed the "Red Blotch" on them. It never occurred to me that it was a fungus. That could explain why the newer ones haven't flowered.

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  6. Your post should be required reading for everybody who 'forces' in vases of water. and anyone else who wants to buy and grow off an Amaryllis.

    .

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  7. Now I don't feel bad that I could never get an Amaryllis to bloom for Christmas. Heck, the last one I bought wouldn't even go dormant for a year. By the way, I stopped by because Dee mentioned you had a good post on Amaryllis.

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  8. Thanks kathy! I hope your talk went well at the Cornell NARGS meeting! Sorry that I missed it. Isn't that Dee a doll? A Dee Doll.....hmm, I do work in girls toys at Hasbro...maybe...

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  9. Anonymous12:03 PM

    Hello Matt,

    The statement "native to the Cape of South Africa" does not apply to the plants with the common name "amaryllis" and which are the subject of your article. The plants in your article are in the genus Hippeastrum and they occur only in the New World in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. The amaryllis native to the Cape of South Africa is Amaryllis belladonna and has the common name of "naked ladies" or "belladonna-lily." I know this is confusing but the plant whose scientific name is Amaryllis belladonna is not the flowering bulb with the common name "amaryllis." And the plants with the common name of "amaryllis" are not in the South African genus Amaryllis, but rather, in the New World genus Hippeastrum. See the Wikipedia entries for "Amaryllis" and "Hippeastrum" for further details.

    The statement "Amaryllis are designed to go ‘dormant’ once the winter rains pass, and the bone dry summer arrives" applies to the South African Amaryllis belladonna. The New World Hippeastrum species and hybrids, which are the subject of your article, come from extremely diverse habitats but none of the species, or hybrids derived from those species, that are the topic of your article are winter growers that are dormant for half the year during a bone dry summer.

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  10. Thanks Anon: Wow, I wonder why I always believed that Hippeastrum were from SA? My bad. Just shows you why I really should take more time researching such things!. Thanks for the correction. I will post a new story correcting much of this. Now, it makes much more sense to me, why the South American growers are having luck growing Hippeastrum commercially. I think I made a huge, and incorrect assumption, as I grow other amaryllis such as Nerine, which do come from South Africa.

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  11. The recommendation, to not grow them from seed, is wise - but from a diametrally opposed point of view, gathered by my own experience: I am literally drowning in them seedlings. Fact is, the Germination Rate from fresh seed (less than 2 months after harvest) is up to 90% - PARTICULARLY from seed from TETraploid (Majority of Hybrids are). Germination from Diploids (H.papilio, H.cybister "Chico" and many other Species Hippeastrums are) is admittedly somewhat lower. I obtained some truly outstanding specimens from my own crosspollinations. Salutations from GERMANY. I am writing as HAWEHA on GardenWeb Forums and rarely on PacificBulbSociety.
    "PapDon2" - a TET from H.papilio x "Donau"
    http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v215/haweha/8802_zps4fc75b7c.jpg
    "CybPap#5" a DIP from H.papilio x H.cybister "Chico"
    http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v215/haweha/CIMG8849_zps9098e746.jpg
    "PapDonAmb2" a DIP from H.papilio x ("Donau" x "Ambiance")

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