The Great Amaryllis Race is on

Amaryllis in full flower. — Nesson Marshall/Flickr

Amaryllis in full flower. — Nesson Marshall/Flickr

And they’re off! The five contenders in the Great Amaryllis Race are potted up, watered and on their way.

You’re probably familiar with these great, gaudy flowers, grown from an oversized bulb, that bloom during the dreary days of midwinter. Amaryllis bulbs make great holiday gifts — partly because their appearance in dormancy gives no hint of the glory to come (the surprise factor), but mostly because they are all but foolproof. It takes no special skill to coax one into flower, so you can offer them to one and all with little fear that they will fail to do their stuff.

When I dispense amaryllis at Christmas, I like to give enough of them away to justify a little friendly competition. Who will get the first bloom and win the race to the floral finish line? Well, we’ll see — and maybe learn something about conditions that favor quick results.

This year there are five of us: Deborah, Annie and Kathy have a flaming orange variety called ‘Desert Dawn,’ potted up on Dec. 22; Janet and I have a heavily ruffled white type called ‘Snow White,’ potted up on Dec. 25. The lag in start time means that Janet and I have a three-day handicap, to be applied, as in sailboat races, to the raw results.

Some of my fellow competitors suspect I have an advantage in all of this, as a garden know-it-all (their words, not mine). But the truth is, I haven’t grown an amaryllis in years, and I am, sad to say, as deadly to most houseplants as the next person. Plus, I’m about to reveal all I have learned about amaryllis-growing.

The proper name of these plants name isn’t amaryllis at all but Hippeastrum, and those available commercially are hybrids bred for outrageous flower size and color. Amaryllis are tropical plants, originally from South America and Africa, where seasons are opposite; in their native lands, amaryllis are a summer-blooming flowers.

The commonest kind is a bold scarlet, but now we also have pink, white and orange types, varieties striped or blushed and a picotee style in which each white petal bears a fine ruby outline. There also are double-flowered amaryllis and miniatures that grow only 12 to 18 inches tall, about half the size of the common strain. (Gift idea for next year: one ‘Snow White’ and seven dwarfs.)

Just emerging, rose-tinted amaryllis shoots. — Timothy Valentine/Flickr

Just emerging, rose-tinted amaryllis shoots. — Timothy Valentine/Flickr

All amaryllis bloom better if they are slightly potbound, so choose a container that’s no more than an inch or two larger than the diameter of your bulb. I plant them exclusively in clay pots, because the flowers are quite top-heavy and can topple a plastic container.

Be sure to provide good drainage, both by using a light, airy potting mix, and by making sure your container has ample holes. The other important point is to plant the bulb with the top third exposed; you don’t want water to accumulate around the neck, causing rot.

The standard advice is to water thoroughly at planting, and then not again until you have obvious ignition — the bulb stalk begins to protrude and any pale shoots turn green, often with a rosy tint. I like to trim the pots with florists’ moss packed around the bulb, both for looks and to retain moisture in the soil. Once growth begins, water whenever the top soil feels dry, but don’t drown the bulb and keep water out of the neck.

Amaryllis like it warm, with night temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees and daytime temperatures of 70 degrees or better. They’ll grow fastest with a minimum of four hours direct sunlight a day, but bright indirect light will do the trick as well. A windowsill is ideal, and proximity to the glass will probably assure that temperatures fall at night. Once they get going, remember to turn the pot daily lest you have a strangely twisted flower stalk. When bloom is achieved, flowers will last longer if you move the plant to a cooler, shadier location.

You can bring your amaryllis through the summer, induce dormancy, store it for two months in a frost-free location and hope to revive it again next season. I consider all bulbs forced for winter bloom a short-term commitment, and prefer to ditch the bulb once it flowers. This is supposed to be play, not work.

I’ve got about 1 1/2 inches of growth already, and my amaryllis shoot is greening up nicely. My fellow contenders report their bulbs also have started their engines, so the flag has fallen and the race is on. I really don’t care who comes in first, as long as we have some fun. To the competition I say this: You go, girl!