In the days leading up to the holidays, amaryllis bulbs (Hippeastrum spp.) are everywhere, from upscale garden centers to discount stores.
Their cheery bright flowers add much-needed splashes of color at the time of year when our eyes need it most, and they grow so fast that tracking their progress is almost like watching Jack’s beanstalk. As an added bonus, and contrary to the bad rap they sometimes receive, amaryllis bulbs are actually among the easiest houseplants to maintain.
Red amaryllis are most familiar, but you can also find cultivars in deep carmine, orange, salmon, blushing pink, and pure white. Plant breeders continue to introduce new cultivars, including ones with striped, ruffled, or double flowers; contrasting petal edges (picotee types); and elegant single blooms. There are also “minis” and more modestly sized species amaryllis, if you prefer something more subtle.
How to Plant an Amaryllis Bulb
Planting a brand new amaryllis bulb is practically guaranteed to yield spectacular results. The bulb already contains miniature flower buds just waiting to emerge, so all you need to do is provide warmth, light, and moisture. Within weeks, you’ll be enjoying gorgeous blooms.
1. Choose a clean container (with drainage holes) that's 1 to 2 inches larger in diameter than your bulb. Amaryllis grows best with its roots constricted. It should also be several inches deeper than its roots for excellent drainage. Add an inch or so of loose potting mix (above).
2. Place the bulb in the container and add potting mix around it, being careful not to damage the roots. Leave the top third of the bulb exposed (above).
3. Moisten the soil and press it down gently to secure the bulb and eliminate air pockets. Put the amaryllis in a warm spot with indirect light. Water lightly until the flower bud and leaves emerge. Then move to a cooler, lighter area and water regularly, keeping the soil moist but not soggy. Keep the flowering bulb away from bright light to extend flowering.
How to care for your amaryllis
The key to growing amaryllis bulbs successfully is providing abundant light both before and after they flower. (To prolong flower life, remove plants from direct sunlight temporarily while they’re blooming.) Do not place plants in low light after the last flowers fade.
Instead, put them in the brightest possible location until it’s warm enough to move them outdoors for the summer. Or if you prefer, keep them in that sunny location indoors, year-round, where they should bloom the following spring.
When amaryllis leaves get bright light, they use the process of photosynthesis to create carbohydrates, which are stored in the bulb’s fleshy tissue for further growth. The more the bulb manufactures and stores, the more abundantly it will bloom the next year. When carbohydrate production falls short, fewer flower buds develop. If you allow the bulb to go dormant right after it blooms, or you put the plant in a low-light location, it’ll probably produce leaves but no flower buds the next year.
In addition to providing plenty of light, you’ll need to water and fertilize your amaryllis regularly. Water the soil thoroughly, but wait until it feels dry ½ inch or so below the surface before watering again. Spill out excess moisture that remains in the saucer after a few minutes, so it doesn’t wick back into the soil. Amaryllis’ large, fleshy bulb can rot if kept constantly moist. Tap water is fine as long as it’s roughly room temperature, not icy cold.
Fertilize the soil monthly when the bulb is growing actively. Use a fertilizer that dissolves easily in water, preferably one labeled for flowering houseplants. Stop fertilizing in late summer, as days grow shorter.
As soon as petals begin to fade and flowers are no longer attractive, remove the flowers. Cut just below the ovary (the bulge at the base of each blossom) to prevent seed production. Leave the thick flower stalk alone as long as it remains green; it will continue gathering energy that will be stored in the bulb. Once the stalk yellows and softens, grab the base firmly and tug gently. It should come out easily.
Dead heading spent blossoms is more than cosmetic. It prevents the bulb from using its energy on ripening seeds and allows it to remain big and healthy for next year’s bloom.
How to get your bulb to rebloom
Many people find it easy to grow a new amaryllis bulb, but a bit more challenging to duplicate those results in following years. The good news is that with proper care, amaryllis bulbs will not only last for many years, but also multiply and produce ever more dramatic displays.
Once frost danger has passed, move pots of amaryllis outdoors for summer. Put them in a shaded place initially, but move them gradually to full sun. Don’t worry about the leaves getting a bit sunburned or banged up outdoors. They’ll be replaced with new foliage later, when the bulb comes out of dormancy.
Check often to see if the bulbs need water, as breezy, warm conditions will dry the soil rapidly. Too much moisture can also be a problem. Set containers on large pebbles or pot lifters so water can flow freely through the drain holes. Some people advocate sinking amaryllis containers in the garden, but that’s only advisable if your garden soil drains extremely well, and you don’t live where wet summer weather is the norm.
Bring containers of amaryllis indoors before frost threatens. Place them in a cool, dark location to encourage them to go dormant.(Light will interfere with dormancy.) Stop watering and remove the leaves as they wither and brown. Check the bulbs periodically for signs of spontaneous new growth. Typically the flower stalk is first to appear, though sometimes foliage precedes or develops right alongside it.
If they haven’t started growing on their own after two months in storage, you can coax the bulbs out of dormancy. To trigger the bloom cycle, move them to a warm, bright place and water the soil. If some soil washed away outdoors, replace the top inch of soil with fresh potting mix.
They should flower in six to eight weeks, depending on how warm you keep your home. If you have several pots of amaryllis, you can bring one out of dormancy every two or three weeks, ensuring a steady supply of blossoms all winter.