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Wonder Bulb: Amaryllis

Wonder Bulb: Amaryllis
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In midwinter, you couldn’t dream up a better “blah buster” than the amaryllis. This flower is popular for indoor growing, and with good reason: It’s brightly colored, with long-lasting blossoms as big as dinner plates. This queen-size overachiever is a fantasy come true for gardeners and nongardeners alike.

Unlike most blooming houseplants, an amaryllis in flower doesn’t demand a sunny windowsill (although the stem tends to overgrow when light levels are too low). Amaryllis will blossom just about anywhere — they require no gardening expertise whatsoever. These bulbs dislike overwatering and high humidity. In other words, the bulbs share our living preferences and make the brownest thumbs feel accomplished.

In 1837, the South American plant we know as amaryllis was reclassified as belonging to the Hippeastrum genus. (True amaryllis, Amaryllis belladonna, hails from South Africa.) The tender (meaning not frost-hardy) tropical and subtropical bulbs usually slip into a dormancy period and then blossom six to eight weeks or so after the bulb is replanted. Unlike hardy spring bulbs, amaryllis bulbs require no chilling period (in fact, they shouldn’t be stored at temperatures below 48 degrees). So, amaryllis can bloom most any time of year. But since winter is when we want them most, that’s how harvest is typically timed.

At present, flowers spanning 7 inches or more are pretty much legion. And the color range has been increased from the original red-and-white-striped species to all white, solid red, pink, salmon, chartreuse, and burgundy, as well as streaked, picotee-edged, and green-throated versions.

But there is also a movement toward downsizing the flowers. The trend is bringing cybister types with pencil-thin petals (such as ‘Ruby Meyer’, ‘La Paz’, and ‘Emerald’) into homes. Beyond that, the public is hankering after the striped papilio (butterfly) types, such as ‘Exotic Star’.

With the bounty of new colors and forms, you can create quite a vibrant collection for your windowsill. The easiest method is to purchase new bulbs ready for the coming season’s show. Pot the bulbs in a variety of containers that are shallow and sufficiently heavy to prevent toppling as the flower stalks grow upward. Water well once. Put the potted bulbs in a well-lit (but not hot) window. Once growth begins, water sparingly when the soil is dry to the touch. Staking might be necessary to support the tall flower spikes as they grow. In a little less than two months, you should have full-blown, voluptuous flowers in riveting colors.

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