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.


amaryllis bulbs


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.)

white amaryllis

A box full of amaryllis blooms in December.

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.

amaryllis foliage

Same box, a few weeks later in mid-January, tied to sticks and doing what gravity does to our faces. They gradually get longer and sadder. And you get crankier.

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.


Amaryllis in a stunning Christmas display at Longwood. I can appreciate this, but I don’t want to recreate it – especially in a house where accent walls of ‘Fired Brick’ clash badly with the screaming crimson of ‘Red Lion.’

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. 

ambiance amaryllis

If you really want to drive yourself nuts, grow the big cultivars like ‘Ambiance.’ They’re expensive and gorgeous, and that makes them, a) more awkward as houseplants; and, b) harder for the frugal gardener to throw away

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.


It ain’t no Clivia. [Clivia miniata with Philodendron hederaceum ‘Brasil’ in a north facing window.

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.

amaryllis foliage and flower

Sometimes the bulb throws a fair amount of foliage in tandem with the flowering stem, instead of afterwards. In this case it’s going to be an even longer winter.

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.

This bulb has sat in wet soil and rotted. The only life is an escaping shoot coming from the basal plate. A fascinating study in botany, but not a good candidate for keeping. Compost-fodder.

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. 


amaryllis in summer

On the far left, you can see the healthy leaves of six bulbs planted together in a three gallon pot. Note that, although healthy, the foliage still bends in places.

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.

Force Them:

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.

amaryllis die back

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.


Grit makes an attractive and smart mulch for amaryllis.

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).


waxed amaryllis

Here’s one for Easter – this bulb is so large it will probably throw three flowering stems. And then crash and burn spectacularly.


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. 


glitter amaryllis

I don’t have words to describe this half price $48 dollar bulb found in a Florida gift shop, but it beautifully illustrates how hollowed out a waxed bulb can become. It took a couple days before I got the glitter fully off my hands, hair and face.


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