The 12 days of Christmas plants - amaryllis

"Wow!" is the word for amaryllis.

If it has red flowers and blooms in winter, it's likely to be called a Christmas plant. Not that anyone really needs a push to buy an amaryllis. It's so over the top -- that tall, gangling stalk; those enormous flowers; the crayon-bright colors -- that it's hard to resist.

Besides, an amaryllis is easy to grow (outdoors in Zones 8 and warmer and as a houseplant everywhere) -- the first time around, anyway -- and it's relatively inexpensive unless you buy one already in bloom from a florist.

I'd always thought that these big beauties originated in South Africa, but the National Arboretum says that it's the Americas instead.

Care is simple. If the bulb you bought was in a pot, just water it thoroughly with warm water, making sure that all the soil is soaked. (Many amaryllis bulbs are potted in peat moss, which is hard to wet.)

If you bought only a bulb, you'll need fast-draining potting soil and a sturdy pot (with drainage holes) that's wide enough so that it allows one to two inches of space all the way around between the bulb and the edge of the pot. Plant the bulb so that half or a little more of it is above the soil's surface and water thoroughly.

Then, whether you started with a bulb in a container or potted up your own, place the amaryllis in a warm spot until you see a green shoot.

That's your sign to move the plant where it will receive bright light, including some sun, and to water whenever necessary to keep the soil slightly moist. Fertilizer isn't necessary.

As the flower stalks grow tall, it's often a good idea to provide some support so they don't fall over.

It usually takes about six weeks for an amaryllis bulb to flower. When it finishes, remove the stalks at their base but leave the leaves intact. If you want to keep the plant growing for another year, keep giving it the same care as when you were bringing it into bloom.

The National Arboretum gives this advice on getting amaryllis to bloom in succeeding years:

In late winter, when growth begins, increase light, water, and fertilizer. As soon as frost is past, move the plant outdoors.

Help the plant enter dormancy in late summer or early autumn by cutting back on watering and withholding fertilizer. When the foliage has died, move the plant to the coolest spot available (55 degrees F. -- 13 C) is ideal, but, for most people, not practical.

Check weekly to see if there's any green showing. (Usually it takes eight to 10 weeks.) When you see that, start the care cycle all over again.

I once had an amaryllis bloom on July 4 because I forgot it was in a family room window, and it entered dormancy by neglect! So this isn't rocket science.

The main thing you'll find is that while the flower stalks usually(but not always) appear first on a new amaryllis, when you're getting the bulb to rebloom, the leaves may develop first and then the flowers.

Amaryllis bulbs often go on sale in January and February as retailers clear out those that weren't sold for the holidays. If they're a good buy, I highly recommend picking up a couple. It's fun to have one in bloom each month from now through March.

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