Every fall, Canadians buy more than half a million amaryllis bulbs. And it's no wonder. I consider the easygoing amaryllis (Hippeastrum spp.) a marvel because no other plant delivers such spectacular blooms—with absolutely no effort on my part—in the middle of our far-too-long winters.
Even neglectful indoor gardeners (and I am one) can be winners at growing amaryllis. They are such delightfully trouble-free plants, not often bothered by pests or disease. At least 20 of them regularly grace pots around my house in winter; the sight of their sensual, trumpet-shaped blooms unfurling is always uplifting when the weather's foul.
From whence hails the amiable amaryllis? It's a native of South Africa, where it still grows wild in some areas. Back in the 1800s, amaryllis bulbs were costly and rare. Luminaries such as Napolean's wife Empress Josephine and former U.S. president Thomas Jefferson eagerly collected them. But despite the willingness of collectors to spend big bucks, there were few cultivars available, and everyone had to settle for blooms in that now tiresome fire-engine red.
Exciting and exotic cultivars
Today, amaryllis are less expensive and much more exciting. Hybridizers as far afield as Australia, Israel and India keep developing new varieties in many sizes, styles and shapes, boasting colours that range from tangerine to pale green. My two current favourites are ‘Picotee', whose massive, stark-white petals outlined in red are sculptural perfection, and H. papilio ‘Butterfly', which is something of a misfit because it resembles a butterfly and produces lime-coloured petals striped with a rather startling maroon (shown right).
Also worth checking out are the trendy Cybister Hybrids developed four decades ago by American hybridizer Fred Meyer. These have pencil-thin stems and spiky, peculiarly curving petals, like those of some orchids. For years, the Cybisters were primarily grown as cut flowers (and still are, in the Netherlands), but they're now popping up in some garden centres and bulb catalogues. I've found the Cybisters to be less dependable than tried-and-true amaryllis. Even so, they're an interesting novelty and I'm trying more this year.
Whatever the type, all amaryllis have ridiculously simple growing requirements: Plant them in the fall in a pot with the top third of the bulb above the soil's surface. They'll thrive in virtually any growing mix, but I like to add a scoop of gritty horticultural sand to improve drainage. Heavier clay pots are preferable to plastic ones, which tend to topple over when the large stalks develop. Place them in a well-lit spot and water when you remember. That's about it.
Inset photo: H. papilio ‘Butterfly', courtesy of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Centre