Some people consider poinsettias the official flower of the holiday season. I say, "Move over, poinsettia, and make way for amaryllis!"
Whenever I'm tempted to buy a poinsettia, I picture how it'll look after a few weeks in my house, with too little sunlight and desert-like conditions thanks to a forced-air furnace. (Surely, I'm not the first person to stash a crispy-leaved, pathetic-looking poinsettia into a closet when guests pop in for a visit.)
With their large, trumpet-shaped flowers set high on sturdy stems, statuesque amaryllises are just as pretty as poinsettias, but it's so much easier to keep them looking their best. Plus, it's not hard to get them to rebloom year after year.
Amaryllis plants come in a surprising variety of colors and patterns — red, pink, white, salmon, even green. Many varieties boast stripes, edging or veining for an endless array of choices. For me, it's enough that they don't scream "Christmas" when they are still blooming well into the new year.
Big, bold amaryllis plants make perfect living centerpieces, make a statement on entry tables or brighten guest bathrooms. They also make great gifts because they require so little care, grow with amazing speed and put on such a show.
There is one catch, though. You can buy plants already potted or stems of cut flowers. But if you want to pot your own — that's the fun part — you've got to get an early start.
That's why I've come to think of the amaryllis like a make-ahead casserole: Pot some up now to add style to your holiday decor later.
The bulbs can be planted one to a container or in groups of three to five for an even more impressive display.
But there's no need to stick to a traditional flowerpot. Get imaginative with your container. Consider an urn or a lined basket, a galvanized bucket or a soup tureen. There also are special glass vases modeled on vintage bulb forcers that use only water as a growing medium.
Select a healthy bulb free of injury or mold. Bigger is indeed better when it comes to these beauties.
Hydrate the bulb in lukewarm water for a few hours before planting. Amaryllises like it snug, so plant them in a container that's not much larger than the fat, onion-shaped bulb. Fill the container with potting soil, but leave one-third of the bulb exposed, so its "shoulders" are above the soil line. Then top-dress your container with moss, pine cones, polished pebbles or decorative gravel and place it in a bright window.
You need to water only sparingly until the stem appears. As the stem grows, water it more often and feed with a water-soluble houseplant fertilizer twice a month.
Once your amaryllis is in spectacular bloom, move it out of the direct sun to a cooler location to make the flowers last longer. When the individual flowers fade, just trim them off.
To maintain an amaryllis after the holidays, you need to mimic its natural conditions. In South America this tropical plant would experience rain and humidity through summer and a short dry season for fall.
So, after the plant is done flowering, cut off only the withered flower stalks, not the strap-like leaves. Continue to care for your amaryllis as you would any houseplant, making sure to feed it regularly. In spring, it can go out on the patio or porch once the temperatures warm and settle.
If you want to get it to rebloom for the holidays, you'll need to induce dormancy mid-August. Here's how: Gradually stop watering. When the leaves yellow, cut them off and remove the bulb from the soil. Clean the bulb and store it in a cool, dry place for six weeks. When the dormancy is over, replant the bulb in fresh soil, water it and place it in a sunny spot. Within a week or two, you should see some growth.
You can keep your amaryllis looking festive from year to year. It can become another one of your holiday traditions.
Rhonda Hayes is a Minneapolis-based garden writer. She blogs at www.thegardenbuzz.com.