If you are a gardener, chances are you have received as a gift one of those baseball-sized bulbs we know as amaryllis, which produces huge, in-your-face flowers that are usually red, but sometimes white, or-less often-pink. Yet, while we've all been happily growing them, the botanists have been busy, too, and as well as developing many new flower colors and sizes, they've reassigned this tropical plant to the genus Hippeastrum.
But whatever the plants are called (and since we're not being formal, let's stick to amaryllis), I love them all. Few things inspire me with such wonder as watching the flower tip emerge, followed by the thin green stem, which begins its steady climb toward the ceiling, like some fairy-tale beanstalk. And then the flowers burst forth-often five to a single stalk. I like to place the potted bulb on a table so that the flower head is at eye level. Awesome hardly begins to describe the blooming plant.
Generally the gift-boxed sorts have dinner-plate-sized, flaming red or snowy white flowers. These are definitely beautiful, but if, like me, you've had your amaryllis itch scratched once too often by blooms in these obvious colors, you're probably ready for the peach-colored sorts, or the blushing pinks, or even the ones that have red- and white-striped or splashed blooms. Or go straight for the most alluringly curious amaryllis of all, the Cybisters, with blooms like giant spiders in shades of red, white, and green! Each flower is so elegantly and perfectly formed that it is quite simply a marvel of Mother Nature's grand design.
Gift-boxed bulbs are chilled and otherwise specially prepped to bloom in time for the festive season. But I especially appreciate the blooms after the holidays, so I store the bulbs away in a cool, dry place for up to three weeks before potting them. (Flowering is delayed by keeping the bulbs out of the warmth and light-but it is not an exact science!) By waiting to plant, the bulbs will begin to stir and come into flower during the dour winter months, and I can admire my amaryllis blooms from the New Year until at least Valentine's Day and beyond. North of the Mason-Dixon line, few things make wintertime life more bearable than a spectacular indoor floral display. Gardeners in the South, however, can grow them outdoors, as I did in my Austin, Texas, garden. Their startling flowers looked ravishing next to sturdy agaves and wisps of Mexican hair grass (Stipa tenuissima).
Among the dozen or so that I grew last year, the stars were 'Chico', the Cybister sine qua non. The flower stems are about 12 inches tall, topped by an umbel of three to four flowers; the lower petals are lime green, while the topmost are oxblood red. 'Grandeur' blooms are perfectly formed and have distinct dark red venation against green.
Among the pure white-flowered sorts is 'Ludwig Dazzler', with blooms up to 9 inches across! The edge of each petal is charmingly ruffled, and the flower stems are often 30 inches tall. At the opposite end of the size spectrum is 'Rainbow', a dainty little double only 8 inches tall, with white flowers picotee-edged in pink. It actually looks rather like a yummy bite of lobster claw! Finally, there is 'Rilona', with 9-inch-wide terra-cotta-colored flowers atop sturdy stems that are almost 3 feet tall.
Amaryllis flower best if pot-bound, and the bulb should have its shoulders above soil level. I most often see them in the nondescript white plastic pots provided in the gift-box set, but that's like asking Ginger Rogers to dance in Converse high-tops. I prefer to grow amaryllis in the tall, tapering pottery flower pots known as Long Toms. The effect is like a ballerina getting up on her points-beyond graceful, bordering on lyrical. And isn't that exactly the effect we are looking for when we bring our gardens indoors?
Photography: Peter Krumhardt and Bill Hopkins