It’s not the easiest process, but with a little effort, you can skip the compost and prolong the beauty of your holiday plant.
EARLY IN MY career as director for grounds at Seattle University, I rescued a plant about to be thrown away by our office manager. She had inherited the plant when she began working there 10 years earlier and was frustrated beyond tweedle because all it ever did was produce strappy, not-all-that-attractive, green leaves at the top of a big, fat bulb. I offered to take it, and I’ll never forget the look of stunned shock on her face when I brought it back a year later, magnificently adorned with 12 spectacular dinner-plate-sized, dark-red flowers.
The plant I rescued is commonly known as holiday Amaryllis. Although they are closely related to Amaryllis, a hardy South African bulb, the ones we display as holiday gift plants are in the genus Hippeastrum and are tender bulbs hailing from tropical areas of South America. They usually come in a decorative pot and are among the showiest of gift plants, featuring two or three fast-growing stalks, each crowned with several gorgeous, huge, trumpet-shaped flowers in red, pink, orange or white, as well as striped, or with multicolored markings.
The colorful blossoms can last for several weeks, but once the show is over, most of us relegate the plant to the compost bin. If, however, you are up for a challenge and don’t mind an unremarkable houseplant for a while, with a bit of special care you just might be able to induce your holiday Amaryllis to reproduce its gorgeous display every spring for years to come.
The first step is to cut off the spent flowers from the top of the stalk as soon as they fade. That will prevent the plant from diverting energy to forming seed. Wait to cut off the flower stalk until it completely yellows, to allow it to transfer its energy to the bulb.
By late winter, the plant will have begun developing leaves. The goal now is to encourage vigorous leaf growth to produce as much energy as possible in order to bulk up the size of the bulb. Place the plant by your sunniest window, water whenever the soil surface feels dry and fertilize every two weeks with a soluble houseplant fertilizer.
Although these plants love full sun, don’t make the mistake I did by putting your holiday Amaryllis outside for the summer. They’re highly susceptible to nasturtium bulb flies, which bore into, and destroy, the bulbs. I lost practically my entire collection in less than a month!
In order to bloom, holiday Amaryllis must experience an eight-to-10-week dormant period. Stop watering in mid-August, and place the pot in a cool, dark, dry area, such as a basement or unheated garage. Eventually, the leaves will dry up and shrivel, but don’t panic (you haven’t murdered your plant)! After the dormancy period, repot the bulb into fresh soil, making sure that the top third is above the soil surface. Break off any small bulblets that have formed, because they can steal energy from the mother bulb.
The bulblets can be replanted separately, but when I tried it, it took seven years before they finally produced blooms. Place the potted bulb in a bright, warm location, and water lightly. Before long, growth should appear at the top of the bulb.
Now comes the exciting part: If only leaves appear, it’s back to the drawing board. Your bulb didn’t store enough energy to produce blossoms. You’ll have to go through the whole process again and hope for better luck. If, on the other hand, a bud appears, begin shouting, “Oh, la, la!” Call all your friends to show off your green thumb. You’re about to enjoy a spectacular flower display!