Correctly called Hippeastrum, this houseplant bears colourful blooms in the form of a bell with its six tapered petals giving it a star shape. They come in a range of striking and brilliant hues. Some are two-toned, others have a central blaze, or even delicate veining.
Eye-catching, charming, shy, sensual, dazzling – all these adjectives and more can truthfully be applied to one or another species or cultivar of this ever-popular indoor plant.
The amaryllis, a bulbous perennial, brightens up many homes during the festive season as it has the felicitous facility of flowering right around Christmas.
The bulb can be induced into dormancy at any time after blooming. Similarly, it can also be ‘timed’ to bear flowers at the most suitable period by re-planting the bulb six to eight weeks before you want it to flower. Nurseries have long been selling amaryllis cultivars during November with the bulbs primed or ‘forced’ to flower in late December.
The plant’s formal and proper name Hippeastrum derives from the Greek words hippeus and astron meaning, respectively, knight and star. “What does this flower have to do with knights?” you say? Who knows. Ask old William Herbert, the multi-talented clergyman and botanist who had assumed christening duties. Or you can just call it amaryllis.
Relatedly, the formal and proper name for amaryllis’s apparent ‘petals’ is tepals. This flower does not have petals (or a corolla) and this is because it does not have separate sepals (or a calyx). What it has is a two-in-one combination of petals and sepals, and these are called tepals. Long, narrow, strap-shaped leaves emerge directly from the bulb.
Native to South America, Hippeastrum species have been cultivated, crossed, and bred for a few centuries to create an amazing array of flowers, a selection of which are mentioned underneath.
Most amaryllis plants are easy to grow and maintain indoors which is yet another reason for their popularity. If the bulb is treated with care, it will produce flowers for many years.
Background, Origins and Varieties
There is Amaryllis, and then there is amaryllis – one with a capital ‘A’ and one with a small ‘a.’ The reason is that in the 18th Century botanists conflated what are, taxonomically, different genera into a single genus named Amaryllis. These included species originating in South Africa and species and cultivars of a plant originating in South America, both of them bulbous.
As more and more species and cultivars kept finding their way into the single Amaryllis genus, diabolical confusion was the predictable outcome. Enter the good reverend William Herbert. In the early 19th Century this polymath separated the various species into a new genus, Hippeastrum, a few other genera, and Amaryllis itself. That was far from the end of it: confusion reigned for the next hundred years until an academic paper published in 1938 added controversy to confusion as it tried to establish that Carl Linnaeus actually analysed and referred to the South American plant.
And so the burning question was, which genus was the real Amaryllis – Amaryllis itself or Hippeastrum?
To cut a long story short, this controversy put paid to the pending formal re-classification of certain species from Amaryllis to Hippeastrum. It took a decision at the 14th International Botanical Congress nearly half-a-century later in 1987 to end the confusion and controversy.
The decision retained Amaryllis as the name of the South African genus, with the name Hippeastrum being applied to the South American genus. No, don’t go ‘Whew!’ because that’s not quite all. By 1987 horticulturalists and florists had taken matters into their own hands and they were not going to let little things like decisions by the Plant Kingdom’s eggheads influence their verbiage and labelling. The final compromise: Amaryllis stays Amaryllis but cultivars and hybrids of Hippeastrum, particularly houseplants that flower in the winter, are termed amaryllis.
Species and Varieties
To begin with, Hippeastrum is a genus with over 90 species to which one must add the 600-plus hybrids and cultivars of amaryllis that derive from Hippeastrum species. We outline a mere handful of the notable ones below.
Hippeastrum papilio is a Brazilian species whose flowers are of an odd yet riveting colour combination. The outer parts of the tepals are a varying but light shade of green while the inner part ranges from carmine to maroon, often with striations.
Bearing distinctly trumpet-shaped flowers of a soft vermilion hue, Hippeastrum miniatum is a decorative enough species so as to contend with the showiest of cultivars.
Peruvian-Bolivian native Hippeastrum pardinum bears flowers which are star-shaped and open, with the reddish freckles and spots on yellowish tepals making it one of the most beguiling blooms.
Hippeastrum puniceum commonly called Barbados Lily also has open, star-shaped flowers; their colour ranges from pale orange to vermilion, with a central splash of yellow to make for the prettiest of flowers.
Giving the Barbados Lily species heavy competition is the Orange Sovereign cultivar; a variety whose flowers are of a single solid hue. The simplicity of the colour scheme and the deep flame colour combine to make for an eye-catching flower.
The Red Lion’s flowers have a rounded contour and its tepals are curved and mounded, and of a crimson-hue. It is a luxurious, nearly a sensual, cultivar.
Minerva, not dissimilar in shape to Red Lion, is of a more sedate shade of red but, unlike Red Lion, it has a blaze and lengthwise bands of white, making it one of the most charming cultivars.
Candy Floss, true to its name, is of a candy floss pink except that this well-balanced flower’s colour comprises of many hues and tints of pink in streaks, striations, and veins.
Plump, well-rounded tepals bearing red dots and spots and daubs on a white background make the Flamenco Queen appear voluptuous yet shy and vulnerable.
The White Peacock – an obvious contradiction in terms – though a ‘double flower,’ has three sets of tepals. Pure white, it conveys both restraint and elegance.
The Viridi Rascal is also white but this single flower has vivid red striations and red edging on its tepals combined with gentle ridging, with the overall effect one of delicate beauty.
The vast range of the species and cultivars of this delightful plant mean that regardless of your taste, there is a feast for the eyes and a treat for the senses for every flower enthusiast.
Habitat and Growing Conditions
Hippeastrum occurs in nature mainly in the tropical and sub-tropical regions of South America. A plurality of species are indigenous to Eastern Brazil while others are native to a swath of land east of the Andes running from Peru through Bolivia down Argentine way. A smattering are found in Mexico and the Caribbean.
Different species prefer their own place in the sun – or the shade! That is, Hippeastrum species range in preference from full sun to mostly shade. A few like damp soil and others occur in dry earth with most species preferring areas with regular rainfall but good soil drainage.
As a garden plant, amaryllis cultivars are hardy in USDA Zones 8 through 11 though some, like Hippeastrum x johnsonii, are hardy down to Zone 5. A cultivar may perish during a freeze or a frost. Most cultivars do best in screened sun or morning sun. The most important requirement is that the soil must drain well and not retain any water.
You can transfer your garden amaryllis indoors for the winter by simply removing the bulb from its bed at the beginning of autumn and inducing dormancy by keeping it in a cool, dark place without water or fertilizer for two to three weeks and then re-planting it in a pot.
Feeding, Care and Growing Tips
Unlike those floral fusspots, roses and orchids, amaryllis is one of the most undemanding of plants and will try to bring cheer wherever it is planted. Or, as Thomas Campion said, “I care not for these ladies that must be wooed and prayed; / Give me kind Amaryllis, the wanton country maid.”
That said, you can get the best possible blooms from your plant by tailoring its growing conditions – even wanton country maids do not object to being pampered. Though Hippeastrum makes a lovely addition to any garden, our guide treats it as a houseplant. If you plant a cultivar outdoors simply adapt the guidelines accordingly.
Use a largeish flower-pot because amaryllis plants are, to some or another degree, top-heavy. The best soil pH range for amaryllis is between 6 and 7. The soil should be composed of about one-third perlite or gravel and two-thirds of some combination of peat moss, loam, or compost. Plant the bulb so that about one-third of it is above the soil; it is imperative that the nose not be covered by soil. It is just as imperative that the soil drains properly.
Upon planting the bulb immediately water it thoroughly and thereafter water it lightly or moderately every few days. Aim for a room temperature of 20 to 21 degrees Centigrade (about 70 Fahrenheit). Place the pot where it will get four to six hours of sun daily. As leaves and stalks sprout, watering should gradually be increased in amount and frequency, and fertilize every two months with a 10-10-10 houseplant fertilizer keeping in mind that it is worse to over-fertilize amaryllis than to under-fertilize it.
A good rule of (green) thumb is to water when the topsoil is dry to the touch, to water once or twice a week, and to try to keep the soil just moist but never wet.
Plant the bulb in October to enjoy blooms during the holiday season.
What Do You Do With Amaryllis Bulbs After They Bloom?
After your amaryllis plant has bloomed, your goal should be that the bulb flower again next season, and the season after that. Following straightforward care guidelines will virtually ensure this goal.
Now, with apologies to Edwin Arlington Robinson, though “it [may make you] lonely and it [may make you] sad to think that Amaryllis ha[s] grown old,” after the flowers have withered cut them off just before seedpods develop or when they have started to develop. When the stalk turns yellow or starts to droop, cut it back to the soil (or ground if your bulb is in a bed).
Let the leaves remain. Water and fertilize the plant as usual through the summer for about six months as the bulb continues to sprout leaves. This phase is necessary for the bulb to rejuvenate and store reserves before it enters its dormant phase. In late summer to early autumn you will notice the leaves beginning to yellow. At this point stop watering the plant; this will bring about (the desired phase of) dormancy. When the leaves have yellowed and withered, cut them back to 3 to 5 centimetres.
If your amaryllis is in your garden, remove the bulb from the bed; if it is indoors in a pot, then you have a choice: if you intend to re-plant the bulb in a new pot with fresh soil, remove the bulb, otherwise let the bulb stay in the pot.
If the bulb is left in the pot, shift the pot to a cool and dark environment for about two months and do not water it at all. Begin the feeding and care cycle again after two to two-and-a-half months.
If the bulb is removed, store it in a dry, cool, and dark environment for about two months. The bulb can be stored in a drawer or closet provided it is dry and the temperature is between 7 and 10 degrees Centigrade (about 45 to 50 Fahrenheit). After about two months your amaryllis bulb should be as good as new. Re-plant it “where comfort is, she never will say no.”!
Other than the cyclic pruning described in the just-previous section, Hippeastrum needs minimal pruning.
Each time a blossom dies, cut off the withering flower before seed pods form; this retains energy stores in the bulb instead of expending them on seeds. Use a pruning knife or secateurs; in either case sterilise the blade with diluted rubbing alcohol. Take care not to cut or wound any nearby buds or blooms.
After all the buds on a stalk have bloomed and all the blooms have died, allow the stalk to yellow, then carefully cut it back almost to the nose of the bulb. Delaying pruning will maximise the energy the stalk produces for the bulb.
Where To Buy Amaryllis
As a very popular plant, amaryllis is widely available in brick-and-mortar nurseries and online suppliers. With its staggering array of hybrids and cultivars, you will not find a complete selection at any one nursery or supplier. The more popular ones will be available at a majority of nurseries and online stores while the less-common and more unusual ones will be comparatively harder to find.
You can buy potted plants or bulbs according to your preference. As a general rule, the larger the bulb, the more stalks and flowers it will produce.
If you know someone who has amaryllis plants you may not need to buy an amaryllis bulb – this plant’s bulbs multiply asexually resulting in offset bulbils growing right next to the mother bulb. An offset bulbil can be separated and planted by itself, though be aware that it takes three to four years for such a bulb to produce flowers.
Common Diseases and Problems
Hippeastrum is vulnerable to various diseases. Where bulb rot is concerned, prevention is better than cure. Assuming healthy bulbs, the only causes for this disease are overwatering, waterlogged soil, and poor drainage. Therefore, if you make sure not to overwater and also ensure that your soil drains well, you eliminate bulb rot.
Pests like mealybugs, aphids, mites, grasshoppers, and bulb maggots can attack the plant with mealybugs being the most common houseplant pest. Grasshoppers lay egg pods beside amaryllis bulbs. These hatch in spring and nymphs cover the plant. Here too prevention is the better option. Keep checking your plants for these pests and if you observe them, dislodge the smaller pests with blasts of water and remove grasshoppers by hand. If the problem persists, use an insecticidal soap solution made from Safer’s soap. Dilute to specifications and spray on the plant.
If your mealybug-infested plant is in the garden, you can release beneficial insects like ladybugs and Mealybug Destroyers on the plant. They prey upon mealybugs.
Aphids are perhaps the most dangerous of pests because they breed rapidly and in numbers, and cause irreversible harm to the plant. If you spot an aphid infestation, use a one percent solution of Orthene. Apply it to the infested areas and the leaves.
Bulb mites are more difficult to spot for obvious reasons. A side benefit of annual removal of the bulb from the soil and later re-planting is that you can inspect the bulb for mites (and other pests or disease, bruising, and onset of rot).
A relatively common disease is Red Blotch which is caused by a fungus. Initially manifesting itself as its name, the blotches enlarge into cankers near the base of the plant. To overcome Red Blotch try using Neem Oil diluted to one percent. (Neem has anti-fungal properties.) Because Neem Oil is sold in different concentrations measured in ppm, it is a better idea to buy readymade Neem insecticide for houseplants, if you can find it. Apply it for seven days continual. If you have reason to suspect that Red Blotch may strike your Hippeastrum, you can spray Neem insecticide as a preventative.
The crown of the plant is toxic and the root is downright poisonous to most mammals so make certain that pets do not chew on your amaryllis.