Just because we CAN do a thing, doesn’t mean we SHOULD do a thing or even MUST do a thing. This applies as equally to saving tender plants as it does to committing murder; and for a lot of gardeners in January in the Northern Hemisphere (or whatever you call yourself after reading Anne’s great post here) – amaryllis bulbs (Hippeastrum sp.) grown primarily for the indoor holiday season are making us ask the question of ourselves once again.
Do I or don’t I? Quick Winter Romance, or High Maintenance Partner? (See Tropical Plants and How to Love Them if you’re confused by my terms.)
By late January, your Christmas blooms have faded and long, strappy, flaccid leaves are ruining the look that ruled Instagram just a few weeks before.
Funny how we never see that second bit in our feeds.
Wearied by yet another post on how a spent amaryllis bulb makes a “spectacular houseplant” or an “easy houseplant” (no I’m not naming names), I feel I need to provide absolution to gardeners currently poised over the compost bin with a bulb in their hands and guilt in their hearts.
Amaryllis is a fantastic forced bulb with a gorgeous flower. However, it’s a meh – verging on terrible – houseplant for average people. Unless you are one of those people for whom everything green is beautiful, at all times, in all ways, no matter what, the days you are stuck with its awkward leaves will be some of the longest of your life. But the satisfaction of getting it blooming successfully from one holiday table (someone else’s effort) to the next (your effort) might make it worth it.
It starts with how much you actually like it. Amaryllis often come into our lives as gifts – which means we may find ourselves in an arranged marriage with a blonde when we were really into redheads. Or vice versa. That makes a difference when you’re hovering over that compost bin. If you don’t love it, and you have little interest in learning from the process of rejuvenating the bulb, for Heaven’s sake chuck it and feed your soil. Don’t be ashamed of a little winter romance.
It wasn’t until I started growing pure white amaryllis that I took an active interest in fattening them up for the next season. I’m not a shabby chic girl and you can’t call my home ‘minimalist,’ but white amaryllis petals against pale green calyces atop strong green stems make anything look fantastic whether it’s December, January or February. Plus, they don’t shout “Christmas” unless you want them too. But again, this is personal choice.
With that, the Rant officially ends. What follows is addendum for those who fell in love with their amaryllis this season and want to go for it. And as we’ve got a diverse readership at GardenRant, I’m providing the Short [Generic] Guide and Long [Honest] Guide.
The Short Generic Guide to Saving Holiday Amaryllis
Cut off the Stalk. Water it. Fertilize it. Give it as much light as possible. Take it outside after frost and try not to kill it. Fertilize it more. Enjoy your summer. Withhold water and make it go dormant. Let two months pass. Bring it back to life in a pot. With water. Hope it blooms. If it does, ‘Gram the hell out of it and talk about nothing else for three weeks.
The Long Honest Guide to Saving Holiday Amaryllis
Which has some WHY right along with the HOW.
When strong light is not available, the foliage is unlikely to thrill you. In my opinion it’s not likely to thrill you if strong light IS available. We’re not talking Clivia strappy-upright or Philodendron-quirky, we’re talking fall-over-unceremoniously like a deck of cards standing on edge. But that bulb NEEDS those leaves to manufacture food. So if you’re going to do this, you have to accommodate them.
Fertilizing Your Amaryllis
First, cut the flowering stems off at their base. At this point, depending on space and décor, and what you started with, you can scratch slow-release fertilizer granules into the current pot (much easier), or repot the bulb into plain potting soil and then add fertilizer. I use bulb fertilizer which is heavier on the Phosphorous (the middle number in the NPK formulation, like 3-5-3). Some bulb fertilizers are also heavier on the Potassium (the last number), such as 4-10-10, but all should be lighter on the Nitrogen (the first number). We’re aiming at strong bulb and root formation, not a massive houseplant. If you only have a balanced fertilizer on hand, that’s fine too, but I’ve personally found bulb fertilizers to work best.
You do not HAVE to add fertilizer, but doing so will give you better sized, reliably-blooming bulbs next year – bulbs that stand up to any being sold in November. If you don’t give them fertilizer, it may take them another full year and a half or longer to build up enough strength to flower, as indoor forcing is stressful on the bulb.
If I have several amaryllis in separate pots for decorative reasons, I will pot them together in a large pot to make this whole process more bearable for all of us. I leave one to two inches around the bulbs, pot them with their necks out of the soil, and sometimes I will even use a non-draining decorative container for ease, knowing that I will be watching the water VERY carefully.
Light Needs for Amaryllis
Second, give the pot the most light possible. If you have a large grouping of houseplants in a corner, you can tuck it in with those and use their stabilizing force to keep those leaves somewhat upright, and provide a certain measure of humidity and protection (you’re less likely to forget a group of plants, than one plant on its own).
Another thing I will do to combat PLS (Pathetic Leaf Syndrome) is to use a topiary form (wire or rough wooden sticks tied together), to provide support to the leaves so they are not lolling all over the place.
If you’re in a cold winter climate, you’ve got at least 10-12 weeks of this ahead of you. Continue to water, but infrequently – paying attention to what the leaves are telling you. Even if they are floppy, they should be shiny, hydrated, and healthy, with a few new leaves emerging every once and awhile. A few older leaves will yellow in time. Do not saturate the soil or let it stand with wet feet or the bulb will rot – these are subtropical bulbs native to South and Central America and the Caribbean.
Once the magic last frost date has appeared (and you’ll probably push it a little to get your plants outside), bring the pot outside into a shady place where you can slowly introduce it over the next two weeks to ambient light levels outside. Eventually it can be in full sun.
I trim back any yellow leaves and a few of the older, green leaves. It will keep producing leaves through the growing season and the more sun it gets, the more upright-arching they tend to be.
Finding a Place in the Garden for Your Amaryllis
If you are in warmer zones (safely, USDA Zones 8 and higher, and Zone 7 in a good year), you can plant and leave them in [well-draining] soil where they will go through the summer, go dormant, overwinter and bloom next spring. Avoid a winter wet site like the plague.
However, that’s not my reality, and when it comes to strappy foliage, I’d rather have a Clivia or a Rohdea.
So, I hide them away. This time into a large black nursery pot where I can put them all together and keep them in a sunny area with all my starts, and seeds, and needs-more-assistance pity puppies. This area isn’t on display, and when I was in another smaller garden, I kept the pots neat and orderly in a tiny area near my potting bench.
I give them some slow-release bulb fertilizer a second time, and make sure their drainage holes do not get blocked up. They spend a happy summer getting healthy and fat, and if they started fairly big, they may even produce small off-sets. Every once and a while like Hansel and Gretel’s witch, I feel the bulb to see the weight its gaining, and smile. Bigger the bulb, the more flowering stems it will throw. Sometimes I will fertilize a third time in mid-summer with slow release.
Natural Die Back or Force Them?
Natural Die Back:
As the summer turns into fall, the plant is responding to shorter days and cooler nights and the leaves begin to yellow, particularly if you have a late drought. Eventually it will go fully dormant, though there are some species of Hippeastrum for warmer climates that stay evergreen. If you are not particularly bothered when your bulbs will bloom indoors, you can allow this process to happen naturally, then dig them before the frost and bring them into a frost-free location for a total dormancy of around two months. They can simply sit on a potting bench or shelf. Do not worry that the roots start to wither. Cut the yellowed leaves off very close to the base. Then pot them back up for the winter show and bring inside to warmth and light moisture, triggering the bulb to begin the process again after about 4-6 weeks. No need to fertilize, and DO NOT overwater thinking nothing is happening. It’s happening, you just can’t see it.
This isn’t crazy bulb forcing, it’s just pushing the envelope a little to get a sooner bloom and it’s easiest if you’ve left them in a pot. In late summer, early autumn, before they’ve started to naturally die back, pull the pot back into an area where it will dry out and might be a little cooler with a little less light. Under a porch, etc…
The leaves will yellow and die off, and you can put the entire thing in the garage or potting shed, or take the bulbs out of the nursery pot and store them separately. After seven to eight weeks, you can pot them back up for the winter show as above. Whether you force it a little or allow them to die back naturally, you are looking at 4-6 weeks (after the 8-week dormancy) before they start to push flower buds and a few new leaves.
So, doing the math, if you want Christmas Day blooms, you need to start dormancy 14 weeks earlier, or in very late August/early September. I should say that this never happens for me because I just don’t care enough. Whether I have them in January or in December or even in February, they are beautiful blooms at a time of year where there are few.
So, Should You Keep Your Amaryllis or Throw Them?
When you’re keeping amaryllis year to year, the toughest part is really those 10-12 weeks indoors where you need to encourage leaves, but you’ve got less-than-ideal circumstances, and you’re probably fairly grumpy because, hey, it’s winter. After that period, they just become part of all the other things you’re doing in the spring and summer, and you don’t need to think about them again except to make sure you brought them in at some point, as you do with your other tender plants.
If you can grit your teeth and cope with less than Instagrammable subjects, you may get a lot of satisfaction from looking after those fat bulbs like a mother hen, and watching them come into their own. I’m doing that right now with six beautiful plump bulbs which are throwing two to three flowering stems a piece.
Can I Save Waxed Amaryllis Bulbs?
Yes, you can. Do you want to? Totally different question. Waxed amaryllis bulbs have become very popular in the last decade. The perfectly plump bulb is waxed to prevent dessication and can be placed on a flat surface to bloom pretty much anywhere (though somewhere bright will prevent the inflorescence reaching).
Although technically an unwaxed bulb has all it the moisture it needs to flower, it will transpire (just like foliage) and lose that moisture without a wax coating. Because the bulb doesn’t root, it doesn’t pull more moisture and nutrients in to keep the bulb plump, and it will cannibalize itself.
If you’re going to save them, peel the wax off the bulb (being extremely careful on the basal plate) and plant it and follow the directions above. The chances are it will need two full seasons to bulk up enough to bloom again.
Or you may be saner than that. What we garden and how we garden is very personal. Whether you have a fabulous Winter Romance or start doting on a High Maintenance Partner, the choice is totally up to you. GardenRant is a guilt-free zone.
At least on this issue. – MW
Well done. Can’t wait to hear what you have to say about Poinsettias.
My thoughts on Poinsettias are much more concise. I don’t buy them to begin with. 🙂 I adore the genus euphorbia but can think of several I’d rather put the high maintenance energy into – E. punicea for one. E. millii for another. This is heresy (against bread and butter for many nursery friends), but I wish the poinsettia holiday market would go away for a few years so I could look forward to seeing them again. But then, as I said, ‘Fired Brick’ accent walls don’t really work with fire engine red. The white ones….yes, I go there occasionally, the pink or glittered ones…. no way. – MW
I have to confess I have never got onto the “white” bandwagon. Moon gardens, white gardens ala Sissinghurst leave me cold. What’s the point when there are so many wonderful colors to enjoy. I suppose embracing white is a sign of sophistication or refinement, something I’ve never excelled at. Have you ever thought about painting that ‘Fired Brick’ accent wall white. Just think of the possibilities. Truly, I can appreciate white’s value from a design standpoint, but why would anyone want a white heliotrope or white ageratum. And yet my buyers continue to bring them into the store and customers actually buy them. Go figure. Oh, and don’t get me started on yellow petunias. Anyway, you are a class act and I thoroughly enjoy your writing. Kudos for your contributions. Steve
I have quite a collection of Hippeastrum that routinely flower every year (often during the summer) with minimal care: They hang out in the shade in summer and get a bit of water and fertilizer when I think of it. I agree they aren’t particularly attractive post bloom but I have found if you stick decorative branches around the bulb as the leaves grow up they don’t flop. Bulbs can live for 75 years and are becoming increasingly expensive so for a thrifty gardener a little bit of unsightliness is worth it.
I keep amaryllis. I couldn’t care less about holiday display, just about the plants. Not all rebloom, but that is OK, considering the care I don’t give them. But I have a greenhouse, and lots of outside space. So I buy one or two new-to-me varieties a year. Some are better “doers” than others.
. What I have noticed, though, is that with the minimum care I give, they have shifted from forced–for-Xmas to spring blooming. Then I can just put them outdoors afterwards.
I am getting the reputation, equivalent to the “crazy cat lady”, of someone you can give old amaryllis to …As opposed to the friend who came in January one year, dropped a dozen potted, bloomed out Christmas amaryllis in my greenhouse, and didn’t bother to tell me until just as she was leaving.
But there are a LOT worse things than being up to your ears in amaryllis.
Yes. Guilty as charged – that was me. I believe you have the Ambience that is in the photo above. But in my defense I did intend to chuck them after two years of fun and games and you stepped in almost before the words had left my lips. No guilt can be massaged out of this cold-hearted gardener. Did have some lovely off-sets this year from those wide whites, above – and if mature blooming amaryllis are a PITA, they can’t even touch the little guys who still need the same care with no bloom. So if you’re looking for more….. -MW
Brutally honest and accurate post! Luckily, I have spot out of sight where I can stick these floppy guys ’til they can go outside.
Honesty was the mark I was aiming for. Thank you! -MW
I agree with Steven Gerry Smith. I can not wait to read your opinions about Poinsettias. This article about Amaryllis is excellent!
Thank you! – MW
After years of limited success, I finally found a formula that works for me: you only have to put up with the tatty leaves the year that you buy the bulb. After that, plant it in the garden in some sun but out of the way, fertilize if you think of it. Dig in Sept and put in garage or basement till Jan or Feb. Bring it out water it and let it grow and it will (probably) bloom in Mar/April when all you have outside is daffodils and early tulips. I have about 8 now so they put on a show when they bloom together. But yes – entirely up to you!
Bev – a longer dormancy period is a smart move. Plants go into the garden about the time you’re finished with the bloom if you’re in Zones 5up. Only issue I see is the shared space indoors as I’m in the mind-set of forcing tulips and hyacinths for March. I may try a much longer dormancy however just for fun as I am growing just whites right now, and they’d look good on an Easter table. Bloom Maker is doing a big line of Easter-colored waxed bulbs because they see the potential in that market. Thanks for sharing this! – MW
I plant Amaryllis in the ground in my garden and they become perennials and bloom every subsequent spring. Since they are poisonous to rodents, they aren’t eaten and generally increase. Zone 8A #Atlanta
Perfect situation. Wish I could do same. – MW
One more reason I’m glad I live in south-central Texas. I dig a hole outside, stick the bulb in, cover it up, and leave it alone. It gets watered whenever the other plants in that bed get watered. It never gets fertilized. If we get a bad freeze, that’s the end of it; otherwise there’s a very good chance it will bloom in the summer–and maybe the summer after that. It if doesn’t survive, it presumably adds to the fertility of the soil, and in either case it doesn’t add to the weight of the compost bin. (On the other hand, peonies and oriental poppies don’t grow here. If I had those, I probably wouldn’t have space to spare for amaryllises.)
You’ve got much better options that me, however I can guarantee I’d be fertilizing them in that situation, whether compost, castes or granules. I wouldn’t be able to give them the real estate without the balloon payment. 🙂 – MW
Well, phooey, I wish someone had given me an amaryllis for Christmas! I bet this is something the deer won’t eat.
You’re absolutely right Jana – very deer resistant as one of the main characteristics of the Amaryllidoideae subfamily are alkaloids that deer and other mammals avoid. My memory is that you are in north central California (correct me if I’m wrong) – you may also wish to try the hardy Hippeastrum johnsonii in the garden (7a), or true Amaryllis beladonna (which resemble our Lycoris squamigera out here)(8a).
Since it won’t do well outside zone 5 I will enjoy the flowers and say good bye till next year. It’s much nicer than a poinsetta!
HOUSE PLANTS? Give over. After flowering they’re just floppy green stalks…
WAXED? Blimey. Never seen the like.
How can I have different ones every year if I have to keep them???? No room!
I’m so glad you addressed the option of planting your holiday amaryllis bulbs outside in your garden in warmer climates. Living in zone 8A my amaryllis overwinter fairly reliably in a protected spot next to my garage. Even after the horrendous icy and cold spell we had in Texas in February 2021, most of my bulbs survived and rebloomed in May. The only drawback to this method of saving your bulbs is that the blooms do not like very warm weather at all and the blooms fade very quickly when a warm spell hit -not unusual for spring here in Texas.
I did try forcing the bulbs to bloom again in December but find it is way easier to just buy new bulbs for winter indoor blooming every year.
Ah ha! Thank you so much for the long version of care. I am one of those save it if it has a speck of green yet gardeners – yeah I know it looks messy, leave me alone. I currently have 7 bulbs I’m saving over as I keep getting them gifted to me by my less plant crazy family when they are done with them. Now, I might get more than an occasional next season bloom as I was missing the fertilizing schedule bit. Thanks for the tips! PS. I really enjoy reading all of you on Garden Rant and appreciate the work and energy it takes to keep it up! Blessings!
Thank you!. I feel that I have been given permission to compost all of my amaryllis! I am not even fond of them when they flower. Too tall, too big, horrible flopping.
I dug a spot in my front yard (zone 7 clay) among some other plants to semi-hide it, and left the leafy bulb all summer, did nothing to care for it. Dug it up in October, cut all foliage, let roots dry out a bit, and put in a paper bag in the basement in a closet until mid-January. It is now repotted and has one very long soon to flower spike, dirty fingers crossed! I think this year, I’ll try to fertilize and keep in potting soil instead to compare the difference.
Milwaukee, WI, Zone 4b I have been saving 9 bulbs for seven years. They survive year after year but are less than stellar. They are outside during the summer. Last year I stumbled upon fertilizing them once a month with a teaspoon of fertilizer. The bulbs became beefy and produced sturdy leaves. Fast forward, after 12 weeks of dormancy, they are producing only one flower stalk. What the heck! The new bulbs I bought this year produced 2 stalks. I am going make sure they get more sunlight this summer, which means I’ll have to pay attention to them so that the leaves don’t get sunburn. …as if I don’t have anything better to do with my time.