For that essential splash of Christmas red there is nothing quite like amaryllis. Poinsettias are passé and carnations a cliché, so I like to be bold and plump for ostentatious amaryllis when decorating for the festive season. Botanical correctness (of which I am fond but frequently uncertain) requires me to point out that these sizzling South American sirens should properly be referred to as hippeastrums. However, as that’s a bit of a mouthful most gardeners continue to use the generic term ‘amaryllis’.
Having grown amaryllis from bulbs and bought them as a cut flower I am rather torn as to which to recommend. Growing from bulbs has its rewards and is, of course, the only correct thing for a proper gardener to do. In return for very little effort, leafless flower stems emerge quickly, producing their flowers 4-8 weeks after planting. Avoid awful gimmicks, like bulbs coated in coloured wax (completely unnecessary), but do buy the very largest bulbs you can from a reputable source. Although not the cheapest I have found Living Colour Bulbs to consistently send out bulbs of an exceptional size, each producing 2 or 3 strong flowers stems. Home cultivated blooms last extremely well if kept on the cooler side but may need staking to ensure they don’t buckle under their own weight. However it’s what happens after flowering that’s the decider between home cultivation and florist. If you have time, patience and space to nurse amaryllis through the year then it is worth doing, but if you’re restricted for room then cut flowers cost almost the same and last an equivalent amount of time. For example, a single large bulb of Hippeastrum ‘Royal Velvet’ cost me £10 and produced 3 flower stalks, whereas a single cut stem of the scarlet hybrid below cost just £3 from our local flower stall and lasted the same amount of time. A good trick is to insert a stick into the hollow cavity of each stem to support the flowers as they open. The green, split-cane type are perfect. Equally, surrounding the blooms with pussy willow twigs in a vase will create a protective framework.
Should you decide to grow your own, then plant each bulb in a pot only slightly larger than the bulb itself. This is for two reasons. Firstly the bulb will produce very few roots before flowering so does not need a lot of compost. Secondly a tight fit will help prevent the bulb from tipping over when the hefty flowers open.
Amaryllis are tender bulbs and so need to be started off indoors in a warmish room (21°C) any time between November and April. Use a soil-based compost such as John Innes No.2 and leave two-thirds of the bulb protruding above the surface. Water very sparingly at first, as the bulbs will mainly use their own moisture reserves to produce their display of stunning flowers. Only when the leaves start to appear after flowering should you begin watering regularly. Turn pots frequently to ensure the flower stems grow straight, and once the buds begin to open move to a cooler spot (about 15–18°C) which will help the flowers last longer.
When flowering is over it’s decision time. Either throw the bulbs out and start again in November or accept the challenge and nurse them through the spring and summer ready to flower again. The best advice is to start feeding with a liquid fertiliser once the strappy leaves appear and move the bulbs to a heated greenhouse followed by a shady spot outside in summer. Continue to water regularly. In late September stop watering and allow the plants to dry out and die back. The bulbs should then be kept in a cool, dark place (a shed or garage will do) for 4-6 weeks before bringing them back indoors into a light position and resuming light watering.
It sounds easy, and it is, but watch out for a fungal disease which causes dark red spots and streaks on the amaryllis’ leaves. If your bulbs become infected, my advice is to throw them out (not on the compost heap) and begin again.
If all of this sounds a bit much, then your local florist will be more than happy to supply you with beautiful blooms, although your choice of colours will be restricted. At their most extensive, amaryllis can be found in purest white, through apple-blossom pink to fuchsia, bright red and deepest vermillion, with all sorts of colour combinations and doubles in between. But for me there’s only one colour and that’s, quite simply, red.