Plant Answers  >  Forcing Holiday Bulbs

Forcing Holiday Bulbs

by Calvin R. Finch, Ph.D.

hippeastrum X johnsonii
Hippeastrum x johnsonii
(St. Joseph's Lily)


It's hard for me to think of the upcoming holiday season without thinking of amaryllis. As a young boy growing up in the pineywoods of East Texas, I was somewhat spellbound by the seemingly tropical magic of these popular container plants. Each Christmas, my mother would gift me with a new amaryllis to grow. I can't remember when the "tradition" (we Aggies are enamored with traditions) started. As a matter of fact, I can't remember many of the gifts I got as a child, possibly because I didn't get very many! But, I will never forget watching the huge,seemingly lifeless bulbs sprout, grow with amazing speed, and blossom before my very eyes. I still have most of the annual snapshots that I "had" to take of my prized specimens.

In the tradition of "the chicken and the egg" scenario, I can't remember if I fell in love with amaryllis before I realized that my childhood idol had also adored them, or not. As a young "student" of George Washington Carver's, I felt inclined to pattern my budding horticultural life after his. It was after reading a paperback version of his life story in second grade that I came to realize two things. One, that there were actually careers that dealt with growing and studying plants. And, two, that regardless of who you were or where you came from, you could be anything you wanted to be.

Just as Carver had collected them, so did I. By the time I was in high school, the collection grew large enough that I invested my life savings into a 8x12 greenhouse. I can still remember the rare occurrence of missing school to watch my dream assembled. Unfortunately, when I left home for college, I was forced to move my collection to the flower bed in hopes that they would survive on their own.

Although they didn't survive the ensuing harsh winters, the pleasant memories of their first blooms never diminished. I have since spent my days searching for rugged hardy types that will survive and prosper out of doors. I had to look no further that my Shelby county kinfolks to find that the toughest garden amaryllis of all was also one of the oldest. Hippeastrum x johnsonii, the St. Joseph's lily, is reportedly the first hybrid amaryllis ever produced. It was apparently introduced in 1799 as a cross of H. reginae and H. vittatum, by an English watchmaker named Johnson. Unfortunately it is no longer available in commerce.

The popular amaryllis which are commonly forced into bloom around Christmas are actually complex large flowered hybrids belonging to the genus Hippeastrum, not Amaryllis as one might think. The Belladonna "lily" is the only true Amaryllis that comes to mind.

These hybrid amaryllis are perfect indoor container plants, normally producing two, four flowered stalks from their enormous bulbs. A marvalous gift, these bulbs are among the simplest of all flowering plants to grow. Pot them as soon as you get them in a pot not much larger than the bulb. Using a well drained commercial potting mix, set the bulb 1/3 to 1/2 above the surface of the media. Keep the pot slightly moist until the bulb sprouts (flowers first and then leaves), and then place the pot in a well lighted area to avoid stretching and tipping over.

After blooming, the bulbs may be placed directly in the garden and grown as a spring blooming perennial from I-10 southward (zones 9 and 10). Other hardy amaryllis relatives which thrive outdoors in the South include crinums, hymenocallis, sprekelia, lycoris, rain lilies, and the oxblood lily.

I can't think of a more inspiring gift for a hopeless "brown thumb" or sick friend who's confined indoors. Amaryllis are available in a multitude of colors from most nurseries and mail order bulb catalogs.




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