Miss Floribunda: Thrilled by Amaryllis

The amaryllis flower, also known as the "St. Joseph's Lily," is a Christmas tradition in many parts of the world.

Dear Miss Floribunda,

When I was in Arizona last spring to visit a friend who retired there, I was simply blown away by a dazzling display of amaryllis blooming in her garden. She told me she gets gifts of them every Christmas, and then, when they finish blooming indoors, she plants them outside. It takes about a year before they bloom again, but since she feeds them they keep popping up on schedule after that. She told me they die back in her super-hot summer, and then push up shoots in December, waiting till early April to bloom.

Is there anyway this could be done in our area? Because we have freezing temperatures, I suppose I’d have to wait to spring to plant my December-blooming gifts outside. Could they be given winter protection next fall and be left indefinitely? Otherwise, they would just rot in their pots, which is a shame.

Thrilled by Amaryllis on Thirty-third Avenue

Dear Thrilled,

You aren’t the first to be dazzled by this flower — the name comes from the Greek ἀμαρύσσω (amarysso), which means “to sparkle.” True amaryllis (Amaryllis belladonna) can survive outdoors for up to 75 years, but they come in only one color, pale pink, and bloom in late summer. The taller and more colorful Hippeastrum, given as holiday gifts in December, are often called “false” amaryllis, although they do belong to a genus in the Amaryllidaceae family.

Originally from South Africa and South America, they tolerate neither freezing temperatures nor heavy clay soil. On the other hand, they do not have to rot in their pots if you are willing to make the effort to keep them alive. When the blooms fade, snip them off before seed pods can form. Don’t remove the rest of the stalk until it is completely dessicated. This way the plant’s energy can return to the bulb. Now, here’s the hard part: You need to find a place for the pot that is both cool and sunny. Ideally, this would be a sun porch where the temperature is kept between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, but perhaps a window in your basement would do. Do not over-water, of course, but don’t let the soil dry out either. If your bulbs have rotted in the past, you may have over-watered during blooming, or allowed the top of the bulb rising above the soil to get wet. That’s a surefire recipe for rot. Lightly fertilize monthly with house plant fertilizer at about half the recommended dosage. Bring the pot outside in spring. You can bury the pot, but  don’t remove the plant from the pot. (Among the reasons to keep the plant in its pot is to protect the pulpy bulbs from the burrowing animals who find them delicious.) Stop fertilizing in August to induce dormancy. Bring the pot indoors again in fall before the first frost, and begin fertilizing again for December bloom.

Here’s an easy alternative, or perhaps an accompanying project. The Hippeastrum x johnsonii, popularly known as St. Joseph’s lily, will bloom outside. Its blooms are fragrant as well as beautiful. With stalks a good 24 inches tall and long-lasting and lavish displays of red trumpets lined in white, this hardy variety rivals in beauty any of the tender hybrids sold by florists, nurseries and mail order. St. Joseph’s lily is a big favorite in the southern states, and now that our region has warmed so much as to have its USDA hardiness zone reclassified to 7a, we too can enjoy it as a perennial in our gardens.

Another good thing about the amaryllis is that it does not usually die back, but retains its reed-like leaves that take on an attractive bronze hue in summer. They do well in sun or shade, and in any soil that is not overly alkaline. They naturalize slowly by offsets, which can be divided, but are not invasive. They bloom in late spring after most other bulbs have finished, but before day lilies come into flower. Best of all, they are loved by butterflies, bees and birds, but deer generally avoid them.

For more information and good cheer, come to the December meeting and holiday party of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 16. It will be hosted at the lovely home of Jean and Millard Smith, 3600 Longfellow Street.