By Terry Barrett, Outagamie County Master Gardener
The time between Christmas and late May can be a long one for gardeners in Wisconsin. I find myself spending lots of time browsing plant and seed catalogs, daydreaming about getting my hands dirty planting my first new plant of the year in the garden, or just, generally, goofing off (it’s good to be retired). One of the ways I take up some of this time is to begin the process of forcing bulbs.
I love Amaryllis bulbs. I had known about Amaryllis for years, but really never paid much attention to the detail of growing them until my wife and I moved to Alabama. Our
first spring there, I noticed that our neighbor across the street seemed to have dozens of Amaryllis planted in his garden that he treated like perennials. When I asked him about his Amaryllis, he said he had planted them over the years and they just kept coming back year after year, bigger and better every year. In fact, there are reports on the internet of bulbs more than 50 years old that still regularly produce flowers!
He also had some other bulbs in his garden he called “Naked Ladies”. These are also perennial in Alabama but have a different blooming cycle. Whereas, his Amaryllis bulbs would produce a flower spike in the early summer followed by frond-like leaves later, his Naked Ladies produced frond-like leaves in the spring. These leaves die back and disappear, and then in August a tall flower spike appears.
This second type of bulb is this is the real Amaryllis. Technically, the correct name for his “Naked Ladies” is Amaryllis Belladonna. The bulbs we call Amaryllis are actually classified as Hippeastrum. I started acquiring a few Hippeastrum bulbs to plant in my garden. I loved the size and color of the blooms and the wonderful leaf structure of the plant. Overall, I found Hippeastrum to be a great addition to my perennial garden IN ALABAMA. Of course, once we moved north of planting zone 8, planting Hippeastrum in my outdoor garden was out of the question. But I had fallen for Hippeastrum. So what to do?
After Alabama, we moved to Ohio and I started the process of building a garden all over again. I figured that since I couldn’t treat Hippeastrum as perennial, I would use them as indoor plants. I had dug six different varieties (one of each) of Hippeastrum from my Alabama garden and replanted them in individual pots so I could bring them with me to Dayton.
Based on my research, I stopped watering the plants in August, put them in the garage and let them go dormant. They need about eight to 10 weeks in a cool, dark place, but not below freezing. Around November 15, I repotted two bulbs in fancy display pots so that 1/3 or so of the bulb was showing above the potting soil. I watered the two pots and put them under a grow lamp at normal indoor room temperature. Two weeks later I did this for the next two bulbs and two weeks after that I did it again for the last two bulbs. It takes only a few weeks under grow lights for the plant to produce its blooming flower spikes. At this point I moved the pots to the most desired locations in my house for display. This routine gave me several weeks of beautiful Hippeastrum flowers during the dreariest part of the year.
Once the flowers had run their course, I cut the flower stalk off just above the bulb, put it back under a grow light and treated it like any of my other house plants until after the last frost date. Then I planted each of my Hippeastrum in a sunny spot for the summer to enjoy the frond-like leaf structure. In August, I dug up the bulbs, repotted them and stored the pots back in the garage. In early November, I started the process of forcing the bulbs all over again.
If you are interested in growing Hippeastrum, buy the biggest bulbs you can find. Bigger bulbs generally produce more than one flower stalk while the smaller ones only produce one stalk. For a deal, wait until after the holiday season to shop on-line for bulbs. They are usually discounted by 50% or more after the holidays. But don’t wait too long to look for your bulb, every grower I know will quickly sell out their stock. Have fun, and for heaven’s sake, don’t throw the bulbs away. With just a little effort, that Hippeastrum bulb will bring you years of glorious flowers in the darkest part of the winter.